In the wake of “Climategate,” in which a series of leaked e-mails among prominent climate scientists showed concerted efforts to silence competing researchers and manipulate the peer-review process, one would think scientists as a group would be increasingly cognizant of the tone and content of their communications. But at least one well-known scientist seems to be exactly the opposite.
Tyrone Hayes, a research scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, has for many years been a leading voice in the anti-pesticide movement. In fact, his studies on atrazine, while repudiated by many health authorities around the world, have been a mainstay in the efforts of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Pesticide Action Network North America and others to ban pesticides. His influence is such that a newly activist Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently cited an NRDC report and press stories based in part on Mr. Hayes’ work when instituting its unprecedented re-review of atrazine – which many believe is the first target in what is a broader campaign against agricultural and industrial chemicals integral to our 21st-century economy.
After many years of trying to resolve the issue privately, the agri-chemical company Syngenta – the maker of atrazine – recently released the text of some of the e-mails it has been receiving from Mr. Hayes, going back to 2002. The professor’s studies and findings are barely mentioned in his e-mails. Instead, the e-mails are obscene, threatening and sexually explicit. They show a megalomaniacal streak in which Mr. Hayes consistently speaks not of his research, but of his personal power and prowess.
Perhaps Mr. Hayes feels that in his efforts to promote a ban on atrazine, any kind of activity is justified. However, harassment, threats and obscenities are never appropriate. It is especially troubling from a member of the active scientific community, upon whose judgment others – including the public – rely in reading and acting on research results.
Certainly scientists can be activists who, on the basis of their expertise (or even solely on the basis of their rights as private citizens) advocate for or against certain policies. It is important, however, that in these activities, they maintain the same ethical standards to which we hold researchers in their work.
The American Institute of Biological Sciences, which once gave Mr. Hayes one of its President’s Citation Awards, describes some of the responsibilities of its members in its ethics statement, which includes:
c Be civil and respectful in professional interactions.
c Be constructive and professional in evaluating the work of colleagues, students and employees.
c Present one’s professional opinions only on those topics for which one has training and knowledge.
Mr. Hayes has violated all of those standards, sometimes in grand fashion.
In an e-mail dated Feb. 13, 2009, Mr. Hayes likens his attack on Syngenta to rape, using explicit language to describe what he feels he’s done to the company. The final line of his e-mail poem is “See you’re **** ed (i didn’t pull out) and ya fulla my j*z right now!” Far from being “civil and respectful,” his language is so disgusting and offensive that it’s almost unbelievable.
Mr. Hayes’ e-mails are riddled with insults of the recipients at Syngenta and their colleagues. Among the many phrases used to describe them: “You dumb d*ck,” “[He] was never smart, and now on top of it, he’s old, [he] knows biology, but he’s dumb, [he] (blunder-crack, we call him at home) lacks sophistication,” and “silly envious dancing clown.” This is hardly constructive and professional dialogue.
But most of Mr. Hayes’ e-mails are about himself. Some of his e-mails are strange dreamlike reflections on his childhood or his home life, but many of them are descriptions of what he considers to be his growing fame – requests for interviews, invited presentations, people asking for his autograph and even a judge dismissing him from jury duty because his work was too important.
Many of the e-mails seem to have been crafted around an invented mythology with himself as the heroic protagonist. In one message, he refers to a former working relationship he had with Syngenta, “do you know where i was when i left you? back in 2000? this is when you should have struck … this is when you should have destroyed me. but you left the job undone … now, it is too late … i have grown too strong, have acquired too many allies.”
In his enthusiasm to give interviews and invited presentations, Mr. Hayes increasingly has added drama to his presentations by suggesting that Syngenta continues to market atrazine because it is a carcinogen and a company from which Syngenta split 10 years ago, Novartis, markets drugs that combat breast cancer. While Mr. Hayes has noted that he has never said this directly, it seems he means for it to be inferred – and many other activists have done exactly that, citing Mr. Hayes.
But in addition to it being an atrocious accusation that other scientists would knowingly promote a cancer-causing agent (and there is no evidence that atrazine causes breast cancer), there is no existing relationship between Syngenta and Novartis. Syngenta was formed a decade ago when the agricultural arms of Novartis and Zeneca merged and spun off into a separate entity. In making these conjectural accusations as part of his professional presentations and discussions, Mr. Hayes clearly is speaking outside his training and knowledge, in violation of the “professional opinions” ethical standard.
Because of Mr. Hayes’ controversial laboratory research on atrazine and no doubt in part because of his intriguing personality, he has become a popular speaker and media interview subject. This visibility comes with an even greater responsibility to adhere to ethical and professional standards. Unfortunately, as the recently published e-mails show, Mr. Hayes has not taken that responsibility seriously.