Corporate influence at the University of Saskatchewan: Professor Peter Phillips and his secret “right to know symposium”

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Tens of thousands of pages of internal documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know via public records requests reveal the close – and often secret – ties between Monsanto, its PR groups, and a group of professors who promote GMOs and pesticides. In one example, the investigation turned up details about Monsanto’s work with Peter W. B. Phillips, Distinguished Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

The revelations included evidence that Monsanto employees assigned and edited a paper Phillips wrote, and participated in a closed-to-the-public “symposium” Phillips organized at the U of S to discuss transparency challenges around industry partnerships. The events raised concerns about industry influence at the publicly funded university, and prompted some fellow faculty members and others to launch a legal challenge to try to obtain the “right to know symposium” transcript.

This fact sheet provides background on these events, and documents from the legal challenge and public records investigation. The U of S has said it reviewed Phillips’ work in the context of the university’s research ethics policies. As a result, Phillips was “absolved of any wrongdoing,” according to CBC News.

News coverage

Monsanto collaborations lacked transparency  

Documents obtained via public records requests uncovered emails describing some of Phillips’ work with Monsanto. Following is an overview of findings and activities related to the documents.

In 2014, Monsanto chief of global scientific affairs Eric Sachs recruited Phillips and six other professors to write policy briefs about GMOs. The emails show that Monsanto employees suggested titles and outlines for the papers, edited Phillips’ work, engaged a PR firm, and arranged to have the papers published and promoted via the Genetic Literacy Project website, which made no mention of Monsanto’s role. Phillips told the CBC he has never taken payment from Monsanto and stands behind any writing with his name on it.

In 2015, Phillips invited Monsanto employees, key industry PR allies, select faculty and university employees to a “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” at the U of S to discuss freedom of information laws and the implications for industry-academic partnerships. The invitation list was drawn up in consultation with Cami Ryan of Monsanto. The event was closed to the public and the university has refused to release details about it.

In 2017, a group calling itself the Academic Integrity Legal Group, comprising faculty members and others affiliated with U of S, tried to obtain the transcript but said they were “stymied by the university.”  Heavy redactions, with about 85% of the transcript blacked out, “indicate an intentional cover-up,” the group wrote in a public petition that gathered more than 1,800 signatures.

Portion of redacted transcript from the “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know”

The case of the redacted transcript was reviewed by Ron Kruzeniski, the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Saskatchewan. In a June 2018 report, Kruzeniski said the university did not appropriately apply the public records law and he recommended the release of a larger portion of the transcript. The university declined to provide it, prompting a legal challenge from D’Arcy Hande, a retired archivist at U of S, on behalf of the Academic Integrity group. The legal challenge, which U.S. Right to Know helped to fund, was unsuccessful, with the court ruling that “there was a ground rule for the symposium which established an environment of confidentiality.”

Hande said in an interview that the symposium appeared to be a frank discussion about how to control the narrative, rather than respond to concerns, about pesticide industry collaborations with the university. Because U of S is publicly funded, he believes the public has a right to know what was discussed.

“It’s like an old boys club.”

The court ruling is concerning, Hande said, because of its emphasis on the use of the Chatham House Rule (an informal agreement used to aid free discussions of sensitive topics) as a reason the information should remain private. “The fact that the judge thought it was appropriate for a public university to come together with industry representatives on the public dime to talk freely without transparency requirements under the Chatham House Rule, it’s shocking actually,” Hande said. “It’s like an old boys club.” 

Documents 

Redacted transcript of the U of S “Symposium on Research Management and the Right to Know” 

Review Report 298-2017 Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner Saskatchewan

Public petition from Academic Integrity Legal Group

Court of Queen’s Bench Judgment, Hande vs U of S

Emails relating to symposium

Inviting industry PR partners to U of S (October 2015). Phillips described his intent to organize the symposium around the visit of Jon Entine (Genetic Literacy Project) and University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta (two key defenders of GMOs and pesticides who have worked closely with industry groups while claiming to be independent). Phillips wrote to Entine and Folta: “When I heard both of you would be in town, it seemed a perfect opportunity to convene a small research symposium to discuss the RTK [right to know] movement and its potential effect on industry-academic partnerships.”

Background, agenda, attendees (November 2015). Phillips emailed Entine, Folta, two Monsanto employees and others describing the need to gather to discuss increased scrutiny of industry-academic partnerships. The names of most of the non-U of S invitees and attendees are blacked out.

Monsanto suggests invitees (November 2015). Monsanto’s Cami Ryan made suggestions for the invite list.

Emails relating to Monsanto/Genetic Literacy Project papers 

Monsanto assigned papers (August 2013). Monsanto’s Eric Sachs wrote to a group of professors including Phillips, “I have started an important project to produce a series of short policy briefs on important topics in the agricultural biotechnology arena … the topics were selected because of their influence on public policy, GM crop regulation and consumer acceptance.” He asked Phillips to write about how “over burdensome regulation” of GMOs “stifles the innovation … important for helping support global food security.”

Monsanto’s urgent request to move forward (September 9, 2014). Sachs emailed Phillips to urge him to review proposed edits to his paper. The “project is on a stronger path now,” Sachs wrote. He explained the strategy “to connect the author’s ‘perspectives’ from this series of briefs to the controversy about GM crops and food that we believe will be triggered in the coming weeks by the new NRC Panel report on GM crops. Next week is the first of two public hearings at the US NAS [National Academy of Sciences] in Washington and a virtual who’s who of the GM crop critics will be testifying.” Sachs noted that Genetic Literacy Project “is now the primary outlet” for the papers and was “building a merchandizing plan” with the help of a PR firm.

Monsanto suggested edits (September 18, 2014). Phillips discussed his progress incorporating edits and changes from Monsanto’s Cami Ryan into his policy brief.

PR firm assigned schedules (August 2013). Beth Ann Mumford of CMA Consulting, a PR firm working with Monsanto, discussed schedules and deadlines with the professors. (CMA, which has since been renamed Look East, is owned by Charlie Arnot, CEO of the food industry-funded spin group Center for Food Integrity.)

No disclosure of Monsanto’s role (December 11, 2014). Phillips paper, titled “Economic Consequences of Regulations of GM Crops” is published by Genetic Literacy Project with no disclosure of Monsanto’s role.

Corporate funding

Although Phillips has said he receives no direct funding from corporations, his research appears to receive some corporate support. The Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a research institute funded by the Government of Saskatchewan, the University of Saskatchewan and Nutrien, a fertilizer company, lists Phillips among its affiliated researchers. According to Phillips faculty page, his most recent research funding involves partnerships with Stuart Smyth, an associate professor at U of S who holds the Industry Funded Research Chair in Agri-Food Innovation. That position is funded by Bayer CropScience Canada, CropLife Canada, Monsanto Canada, the Saskatchewan Canola Development Commission and Syngenta Canada.

Phillips’ funding notes two partnerships with Smyth: $675,000 for a “GIFSCSIP Strategic Partnership” and “renewed funding for Maintenance Project for social sciences as part of the Designing Crops for Global Food Security, $37.5 million” from Canada First Research Excellence Fund Program (with a budget of $1.31 million). The latter is a publicly funded project run through the GIFS, the public-private partnership involving U of S, local government and the fertilizer company Nutrien (formerly Potash Corp), which advertises its products as necessary for food security.

Related information  

Quotes  

“Our university should not function as a shilling station for corporate interests and as an almost contemptuous antagonist of the provincial Information and Privacy Commissioner … whose recommendations it contested so arrogantly in court.”

Len Findlay, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, U of S (LTE, The Sheaf)

The court’s judgment “strengthens the protection of academic freedom and privacy. Academic freedom enables members of our university to pursue research and ideas — even those that are controversial or unpopular — without fear of interference.”

Karen Chad, the U of S vice-president of research (The Sheaf)

“I think most academic ethicists would be queasy about [Phillips’] tight relationship with Monsanto.”

Saskatoon consultant Steven Lewis, co-author of a widely-cited
Canadian Medical Association Journal article about
university-industry relationships (CBC)

“I’m horrified because [corporate influence at public universities] does seem to be getting worse. There is a real problem here.”

U of S education professor Howard Woodhouse,
author of Selling Out: Academic Freedom and the Corporate Market (CBC)

“We encourage our faculty to translate their knowledge into policy arenas. That’s exactly what Prof. Phillips has done.”

Jeremy Rayner, former director, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (CBC)