by Eric Sachs, Ph.D., Strategic Engagement Lead at Monsanto
Unless you’ve worked in academia, it might be unclear how and why companies like Monsanto collaborate with university professors. I have some insight into this myself – as a Monsanto employee, I earned my PhD in Genetics at Texas A&M University, where I attended classes and did my research side-by-side with professors, researchers and other graduate students. Naturally, I developed many close relationships and on more than one occasion debated which career path is better: public research or private research? Developing minds or developing products? Ultimately though, scientists are all educated and trained similarly, and our career path is a personal decision. And at the root of our experience is a passion for science and the pursuit of knowledge.
Today, my role (and my passion) is to share my knowledge about GM crops and other agricultural innovations with audiences through public outreach and collaboration. In this role, I still have many opportunities to exchange ideas and work with university professors. While the importance of this type of collaboration is clear to me, I understand why some people have questions about how and why companies like Monsanto work with universities.
Below are answers to some commons questions on this topic. If your questions aren’t addressed here, I encourage you to submit your question at discover.monsanto.com.
Why does Monsanto work with academics?
There are almost as many reasons for working with academics as there are academics. Importantly, most academics do research and engage in public outreach, either via their teaching, community engagements, or through media.
In some cases, we work with a specific professor or university because they’re experts in a certain area and we can benefit from their knowledge and experience. That might mean co-authoring an article with them, or collaborating on a specific area of research. In other cases, it’s because we share a common goal – for instance, improving people’s knowledge or responding to concerns on a particular scientific issue.
But the greatest reason for collaboration is that our knowledge and experiences are complementary and produce outcomes that benefit society. Many products we use every day are the result of public-private partnerships.
Does Monsanto pay professors?
We don’t pay professors as direct compensation. But like many companies, we do sometimes fund a professor’s research program or help them carry out public education and outreach. This funding typically comes in the form of either restricted or unrestricted grants.
What’s the difference between a restricted grant and an unrestricted grant?
A restricted grant is funding for a specific research project. For instance, if we want an independent scientist with highly technical expertise to conduct a field trial for a new product, we could give a professor or a university a grant to conduct that study. The money couldn’t be used for anything else – it is restricted.
An unrestricted grant or gift is more flexible – the university decides how best to use it. For instance, if we awarded a professor an unrestricted grant to help them carry out public education efforts on a topic like GM crop safety, that professor might use it to give a presentation at an out-of-town conference or develop communication materials to share with the public online.
Are academics saying good things about GMOs just because Monsanto is funding them?
At the risk of speaking for academics, I think they say good things about GM crops because that’s what they believe. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 88% of scientists believe GM foods are safe – that’s a higher percentage than believe climate change is mostly due to human activity.
It is important to know that scientists are trained to communicate based on well-founded scientific evidence. As a result, much of the time, public and private sector scientists are going to reach similar conclusions on matters of science, particularly when there is a large base of evidence from years of study. The bottom line, when scientists agree or disagree, it is about the quality of the science and analysis, not about the source of funding.
Does Monsanto use professors or other academics to lobby government officials?
Like many companies, we do present our perspective on issues that matter to us and our customers to government officials. We don’t have any professors working for us as lobbyists. But like many other people, government officials want to hear about the safety of our products from experts outside Monsanto. On an issue like the safety of GM crops, many are more confident about scientific findings when the source is an independent scientist like a professor. We identify independent experts, oftentimes well known leaders in their field of study and highly respected by their peers, to communicate to public officials and society. In every such case, we thoroughly follow the laws to ensure our efforts are transparent, appropriate and legal.
Why should I trust academic research that a company helped pay for?
I spent enough time in academia to earn a PhD, and I know from experience that it’s fiercely competitive. To succeed as a professor, you typically need a very strong reputation for conducting research that’s both interesting and trustworthy. Scholarly research and a reliable reputation are critical assets for scientists, which enables them to successfully obtain grants from public and private institutions to further their research and outreach efforts.
I’ve never met a reputable professor who would risk their professional reputation by letting their funding sources distort their research findings. Scientific research at universities is very often funded by outside sources, including companies, foundations, and the government. A professor who wasn’t able to conduct objective research regardless of funding source simply wouldn’t maintain their credibility for long.