Biotechnology, News, Science Media November 12, 2013

Can the Scientific Reputation of Pamela Ronald, Public Face of GMOs, Be Salvaged?

by Jonathan Latham

by Jonathan Latham, PhD
Professor Pamela Ronald is probably the scientist most widely known for publicly defending genetically engineered (GE or GMO) crops. Her media persona, familiar to readers of the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, NPR, and many other global media outlets, is to take no prisoners.

After New York Times chief food writer Mark Bittman advocated GMO labelling, she posted an article on her blog (written by John Entine) that called him “a scourge on science” who “couches his nutty views in reasonable-sounding verbiage”. His opinions were “almost fact- and science-free” said the article. In 2011 she claimed in an interview with the US Ambassador to New Zealand: “After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.”

Pamela Ronald
Pamela Ronald

This second career of Pamela Ronald’s, as advocate of GMOs (which also includes being a book author, and contributor to and board member of the blog Biofortified) is founded on her first career: at the University of California in Davis she is Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Director of the Laboratory for Crop Genetics Innovation, and Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, among other positions.

This background is relevant because Pamela Ronald is now also fighting on her home front. Her scientific research has become the central question in a controversy that may destroy both careers. In the last year Ronald’s laboratory at UC Davis has retracted two scientific papers (Lee et al. 2009 and Han et al 2011) and other researchers have raised questions about a third (Danna et al 2011). The two retracted papers form the core of her research programme into how rice plants detect specific bacterial pathogens (1).

When the mighty fall, others try to catch them

The first paper was retracted on January 29th 2013, from the journal PLoS One (Han et al 2011). News of the retraction was (belatedly) published on the 11th of September 2013 by the blog Retraction Watch under the headline: Doing the right thing: Researchers retract quorum sensing paper after public process (2). [CORRECTION: Jan 29th was the date the Ronald group notified PLoS One of probable errors. Retraction formally occurred on Sept 9th. Apologies to Retraction Watch as there was no delay to explain. Footnote 2 is therefore superfluous.]

The second retraction, from Science, was officially announced a month later, on October 11th 2013 (Lee et al 2009). This time, retraction was accompanied by a lengthy explanation (Anatomy of a Retraction, by Pamela Ronald) in the official blog of Scientific American. In this article, Ronald blamed the work of unnamed former lab members from Korea and Thailand. Retraction Watch reported the retraction as: Pamela Ronald does the right thing again. Also on the same day, The Scientist magazine quoted Pamela Ronald saying it was “just a mix-up” and repeating her claim that “Former lab members who had begun new positions as professors in Korea and Thailand were devastated to learn that [we] could not repeat their work.”

Scientifically, the two retractions mean that the molecule (Ax21), identified by Pamela Ronald’s group (in Lee et al 2009), is not after all what rice plants use to detect the pathogen rice blight (Xanthomonas oryzeae) and neither is it a ‘quorum sensing’ molecule, as described in Han et al 2011.

The media coverage of the retractions didn’t query Ronald’s mea non culpa. Instead, reports added, as UC Berkeley professor Jonathan Eisen put it, ‘Kudos to Pam’ for stepping forward.

Did Pamela Ronald jump, or was she pushed?

In fact, scientific doubts had been raised about Ronald-authored publications at least as far back as August 2012. In that month Ronald and co-authors responded in the scientific journal The Plant Cell to a critique from a German group. The German researchers had been unable to repeat Ronald’s discoveries in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011) and they suggested as a likely reason that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Furthermore, the German paper also asserted that, for a theoretical reason (3), her group’s claims were inherently unlikely.

In conclusion, the German group wrote:

“While inadvertent contamination is a possible explanation, we cannot finally explain the obvious discrepancies to the results in..…..Danna et al. (2011)”

Pamela Ronald, however, did not concede any of the points raised by the German researchers and did not retract the Danna et al 2011 paper. Instead, she published a rebuttal (Danna et al 2012) (4).

The subsequent retractions, beginning in January 2013 (of Lee et al 2009 and Han et al 2011), however, confirm that in fact very sizable scientific errors were being made in the Ronald laboratory. But more importantly for the ‘Kudos to Pam’ story, it was not Pamela Ronald who initiated public discussion of the credibility of her research.

Was it “just a mix-up”?

Reporting of the retractions also accepted Pamela Ronald’s assertions that simple errors by two foreign and now-departed laboratory members were to blame. But her more detailed description of events, which appeared in Footnotes with technical details for those in the discipline below her Scientific American blog, contradict that notion.

Ronald’s footnotes admit two mislabellings, along with failures to establish and use replicable experimental conditions, and also minimally two failed complementation tests. Each mistake appears to have been compounded by a systemic failure to use basic experimental controls (5). Thus, leading up to the retractions were an assortment of practical errors, specific departures from standard scientific best practice, and lapses of judgement in failing to adequately question her labs’ unusual (and therefore newsworthy) results.

Who is responsible?

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE ) published the first and most widely cited principles of authorial ethics in science. These recommendations are followed by thousands of medical and other scientific journals. The following is the first paragraph of the section regarding authorship:

“Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications. Authorship also implies responsibility and accountability for published work. The following recommendations are intended to ensure that contributors who have made substantive intellectual contributions to a paper are given credit as authors, but also that contributors credited as authors understand their role in taking responsibility and being accountable for what is published.” (italics added)

The ICMJE guidelines go on to state that authorship should not be conferred on those who do not agree to be accountable for all aspects of the accuracy and integrity of the work.

Some scientific journals, have their own policies that provide more specifics. The journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology states:

“Principal investigators are ultimately responsible for the integrity of their research data and, thus, every effort should be made to examine and question primary data.”

Likewise, Columbia University’s guidelines on responsible authorship and peer review concludes:

“Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.”

Lastly, Science (publisher of Ronald’s retracted Lee et al 2009 paper) has this policy on authorship:

“The senior author from each group is required to have examined the raw data their group has produced.”

It is perhaps surprising then that a senior scientist should publicly disclaim responsibility for research carried out in their own laboratory.

(1) Pamela Ronald appeared to be a leader in understanding the mechanisms by which rice, and other plants, detect and resist important pathogens. She and others have (or in the case of Ronald, thought they had) identified specific molecules characteristic of each pathogen that are detected by dedicated receptors in plants. In this case, rice cultivars resistant to the bacterium Xanthomonas oryzeae detect a small protein molecule called Ax21 that derives from the pathogen. The ability to detect Ax21 enables rapid activation of defences and thus confers resistance to the pathogen. This line of research, as it pertains to Pamela Ronald and Ax21, is now retracted.
(2) Retraction Watch does not explain the delay of over 8 months between the retraction and their report of it. Neither is the “after public process” part of the headline explained.
(3) The theoretical reason is that molecules that warn of incipient plant pathogen infection (as Ax21 was supposed to do) are typically detected by receptors at very low concentrations–otherwise they wouldn’t serve as useful warning molecules. Yet in the experiments from Pamela Ronald’s laboratory (Lee et al. 2009 and Danna et al. 2011) Ax21 is required to be present at concentrations millions of fold higher than other elicitors to achieve the same effects (Mueller et al 2012).
(4) The rebuttal argued, among other points, that: “experimental differences may explain the failure of Mueller et al. (2012) to observe FLS2-dependent defense-related responses.” (Danna et al 2012).
(5) The errors noted by Pamela Ronald in her Scientific American blog were: a) “By careful sleuthing, [lab members] found that two out of 12 of the strains……were mislabeled.” b)“In the more recent experiments we found that although the modified (sulfated) Ax21 peptide did induce resistance in Xa21 plants, it also induced resistance in plants lacking the Xa21 immune receptor, an important control.” c) “Furthermore, results of the pretreatment test were highly dependent on greenhouse conditions.” d) “They also made mistakes in their complementation tests of the Ax21 insertion mutant with the wild-type Ax21 gene.” (italics added). e) These errors were not caught prior to publication because experiments in the Ronald lab lacked controls. Apparently: “When laboratory members first established the pretreatment assay years ago, they included diverse controls to optimize the assays. However, in subsequent experiments, some of the controls were dropped to reduce the size of the experiments.”

CORRECTION: an earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Dr Ronald herself wrote the article referred to above calling Mark Bittman “a scourge on science”. However, she reposted it only.

Danna CH, YA Millet, T Koller et al (2011) The Arabidopsis flagellin receptor FLS2 mediates the perception of Xanthomonas Ax21 secreted peptides. PNAS 108: 9286-9291.
Danna CH, XC Zhang, A Khatri, AF Bent et al (2012) FLS2-mediated responses to Ax21-derived peptides: response to the Mueller et al. commentary Plant Cell 24:3174-3176.
Han SW, M Sriariyanun SW Lee, Sharma, O Bahar, Z Bower, PC. Ronald (2011) Small Protein-Mediated Quorum Sensing in a Gram-Negative Bacterium. PLoS One
Lee SW, SW Han, M Sririyanum, CJ Park, YS Seo et al. (2009) A type I secreted, sulfated peptide triggers XA21-mediated innate immunity Science 326: 850-853.
Mueller K., Chinchilla D., Albert M., Jehle A.K., Kalbacher H., Boller T., Felix G. (2012). The flagellin receptor FLS2 is blind to peptides derived from CLV3 or Ax21 but perceives traces of contaminating flg22. Plant Cell 24: 3193–3197.

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Comments 23
  • This repeated scientific failure comes as absolutely no surprise, observing that Ronald is a ‘scientist’ more willing to mislead with rhetoric than front up to scientific fact, in her texts and in her speeches. It’s like a natural consequential karma. I have a view that science and discovery takes impeccable honesty – this is not something that could co-exist in the Ronald persona as it is displayed in the world.

  • An interesting and timely article. Well, they say that hubris brings its own multiple rewards. And how’s this for a classic statement by somebody who believes what she wants to believe, no matter what the evidence may show: “After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of two billion acres planted, GE crops have not caused a single instance of harm to human health or the environment.” That, of course, is utter nonsense. There are scores of papers in the peer-reviewed literature that demonstrate unequivocally that GM crops and their cultivation methods are harmful to living organisms. I recall that she said this of the work by Arpad Pusztai and Stanley Ewen: “a fundamentally flawed experiment carried out in 1999 that was never confirmed.” That’s not only arrogant but also disingenuous, since it suggests that the Pusztai experiment has been repeated, with different results. It has NEVER been repeated, and we all know why.

    It’s always a sad thing to see retractions forced on people who do dodgy science, but it’s also reassuring to see that there are still a few scientists around who are prepared to blow whistles and nudge senior academics like Pam Ronald towards the edge of a precipice when they perceive that they might personally be involved in scientific fraud.

  • I was interested to see Pam Ronald using the time-honoured “blame the foreigner” tactic. I did wonder about a similar case in which a foreigner was blamed, the unethical trial of GM golden rice on Chinese schoolchildren, in which the researchers failed to obtain informed consent from the test subjects and their parents.

    Also it’s unclear how much GM golden rice the children ate. A CDC investigation found that the children ate the GM rice only once, not every day for three weeks, as their published study states.
    So either the researchers lied in their paper, or they lied to the CDC. If it’s the former, they should obviously retract their paper.

    The “blame the foreigner” episode came when one researcher was blamed for the golden rice trial fiasco, a US-based but Chinese researcher.
    Granted she led the study, but I did wonder whether all the others involved at Tufts, including the ethics board there, knew about the dodgy science and ethics of the experiment.

    • In response to this: “……I did wonder whether all the others involved at Tufts, including the ethics board there, knew about the dodgy science and ethics of the experiment….” Of course they did. They have been fully involved in the control of these Golden Rice experiments since 2005, and early in 2009 a group of scientists made a formal protest about the use of children in these experiments, in clear breach of the medical ethics code. Tufts University ignored that protest and allowed a further set of experiments to be conducted, which of course led to protests in China and to the eventual “resignation” of Guangwen Tang, the lead researcher. She was hung out to dry, but the responsibility for this fiasco lies at a much higher level, with the Tufts University Medical Centre, the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board, and the authorites involved in ethical oversight. in response to the complaints about the experiments early in 2009, Adrian Dubock of the GRHB sought to deflect attention from the shortcomings of the research process by referring to the concerned scientists as “a failed bunch of cranks” and as “degenerately immoral.” So there we are then.

      The history of this earlier episode can be followed here:
      Sick children used as GM feeding trial guinea-pigs
      Open Letter from scientists:
      Golden rice feeding trials breach medical ethics code

  • Nice attack from the above anti-GMO crowd. I guess we can expect the retractions from Seralini 2012 any hour now, right? Not to mention his 2009 and 2007 papers as well. Or a retraction of dozens of false statements in Genetic Roulette and GMO Myths and Truths. The only retraction ever of anti-gmo publications was when Nature disavowed it because the authors would not retract it.

    • Robert, I take it you are not disputing any of the facts presented here… that Ronald has had to retract two papers for what seems to be shoddy work within her labs, with a third called into question. There seems to have been some wastage of scarce scientific resources extending well beyond her labs. I also take it that you are not disputing the observation that she has certain responsibilities as an author, with the consequent observation that her behaviour in localising the fault with others may not be commensurate with those responsibilities.

      In respect of your reference to the Séralini 2012 rat study reporting adverse findings for a Monsanto GM corn crop, an argument for a retraction requires actual data and a developed case, doesn’t it, rather than simply a loud expression from those who are annoyed? It would be good if a verifiably independent group initiated a repeat of the study to provide a confirmation, or, if the data were to differ, to offer explanations for why that might be so, as the German Mueller paper did for Ronald. It would also be good to see resources dedicated to the extension of the in-house GM crop developer tests to longer test periods as carried out by Séralini, prior to the granting of regulatory approval for GM crops. I don’t know of any further papers that require retraction, nor know of any questions asked by Genetic Roulette and GMO Myths and Truths that should not be raised. These questions should have been answered to the full satisfaction of the public prior to the release of the GM crops.

      • Clarification: “further papers” means further to the Ronald papers discussed

        • Thank you, Madeleine Love, for what appears to be an astute reply to Robert Wager — a very well-known GMO apologist.

          Be that as it may…

          It was my understanding that Russia was quite alarmed by Seralini’s study, and if I recall correctly, Russian scientists were interested in conducting an experiment (or experiments) to duplicate Seralini’s findings. Indeed, it was suggested that the study be conducted “in the open” rather than a hermetically sealed laboratory!

          Science as a performing art!

          I wonder if there are any scientists in the United States who possess sufficient intelligence, rigor, and integrity to the extent that they could perform a series of long-term GMO experiments “in the open” in front of the world community.

  • Robert, I suspect you are referring to our 2001 Nature publication where we discovered (and now independently confirmed by at least 4 independent scientific investigations–science doing what it does), transgene introgression into traditional maize landraces in Mexico.

    For your information, in the worlds of Nature Editor Phil Campbell at the time, “The paper was not formally retracted by Nature or the authors” (Nature (2002) v. 417:898). Nor were we ever asked to.

    A retraction is just that: A formal withdrawl from citation in the scientific literature. Our report remains a citable scientific contribution to the body of knowledge on gene flow (and has been cited, more than 600 times to date).

    I hope this clarifies you misunderstanding.

    Kind regards, David Quist

  • She is a big, fat liar! I have been harmed by GMOs. I only became better after I began to follow an organic diet. Our grandchildren deserve better than a country with a poisoned food supply, and a corrupted FDA, USDA, CDC. Shame, shame on her. Shame on the California University system for employing her. Scientists have become the new politicians. Greedy, corrupted, and without a heart.

    • Thank you for your comment and your concern. I couldn’t agree more.

      After years of studying the GMO issue, I have yet to find ANY benefit to current GMO technology… only empty promises.. only technological hallucinations…only GMO castles in the air.

      Alas, rigorous, long-term, independent, international approved scientific testing before implementation is not in the interests of Monsanto, university “scientists” and university “researchers” who place profits and patents before truth, human and animal health, and “environmental welfare.”

      I can’t help but feel that America’s greatest university system (and much of our nation and world) has been more than a little tarnished by the empty promises and greed of corporate pseudo science.

      • No benefits? I could make a whole list here but I’ll stick to one topic at a time.

        The Hawaiian papaya industry would not exist without the rainbow papaya. I would consider that a benefit to papaya farmers.

  • Ronald is the personification of what is wrong with academia today: the emergence of the scientist as corporate shill. Hopefully, she’ll do the right thing (for once) and retire. Good riddance, Pamela.

    Excellent article, thanks.

    • I have to agree with you from top to bottom.

      It would be most interesting to know what is really going in the Administration of UC Davis at this moment.

      PR, Public Relations, Propaganda, Indoctrination, BS — however you choose to name it, there is a lot of it going on in California all the time on behalf of GMOs and its concomitant toxic poisons, i.e. pesticides and herbicides.

      Last year, with Proposition 37, we witnessed quite an intricate web of deceit.

      The players?

      California PR firms in Sacramento and Los Angeles
      California newspaper “editors”
      California “journalists”
      California “scientists”
      California “academics”
      California “institutes”
      California universities, and of course
      The GMO industry they all appear to enthusiastically support.

      Hopefully, in the near future, the very few real journalists left in California will investigate the current state of GMO “science”/GMO politics/GMO money/GMO “research” in California.

      I will look forward to reading their sordid findings — but certainly not while I’m eating.

  • en definitiva el GMO es un negocio global ,con conejillos de indias por todo el mundo ingiriendo alimentos experimentales de laboratorios científicos dirigidos por comerciantes venales

  • Robert Wager doesn’t seem to have learned much from the fact that despite the coordinated campaign (largely by people with undeclared conflicts of interest to get the Seralini 2012 GMO maize study retracted, it wasn’t.

    He should also learn that the grounds for retracting a study are things like:
    1. fraud
    2. scientific misconduct or error
    3. violation of ethical guidelines.
    Grounds for retraction do not include provoking hysterical responses in GMO enthusiasts.

    I take Wager has proof that Seralini et al are guilty of one or more of these sins against science? Time to produce the evidence or stop mud-slinging, in my view.

  • Just for completeness: The above-mentioned paper by Séralini has been retracted — forced and not on their own initiative as Ronald correctly did…

    • Thank you, John.

      I have little doubt that the recent embarrassments of the “Ronald retractions” had to be quickly camouflaged by some pro-GMO PR stunt and the inconvenient Seralini was, however, a convenient target.

      The corruption of American science at every level is most disturbing to witness. Such is inevitable when profit-driven corporations control Washington, control universities, control “research,” and control “scientists.”

    • John — the Seralini paper was retracted by the journal (when Seralini quite rightly refused to withdraw it) under huge pressure from the GM industry and its highly organized supporters. The journal specifically noted that there had been no fraud, no misinterpretation of results, and no manipulation of data. In fact the grounds for retraction were perfectly ridiculous — based upon “inadequate peer review” and upon a presumed lack of conclusivity in the results. If you can point me to any biotechnology paper that is so conclusive that it requires no further research, I will be interested to hear about it……. And one more thing — the journal still portrays the study as “an inconclusive cancer study.” As hundreds of scientists have pointed out, this was NOT a cancer study but a toxicity study, which employed mainstream and entirely appropriate techniques.

      Pam Ronald’s retractions were of a quite different order — based upon a failure of new experiments to replicate the findings of earlier studies. According to all the rules of the game, those retractions were 100% justified and indeed quite inevitable.

  • What a battle. What praiseworthy truth seeking scientists. Thank God for people like you.

  • Please forgive my lack of background in this field, but I just heard Professor Ronald give a lecture this morning and I came away so disgusted that I immediately went online to seek-out more information about her work(which brought me to this article).

    Even though I am not a scientist, I do know when someone is being intellectually disingenuous by playing a game of semantics. In Prof. Ronald’s case, it was her repeated statement that GMO plants are safe for human consumption because “all of the foods that we eat have at one point or another been genetically modified” over the course of human history. I’m sorry, but how can one equate the time-honored practices of simple selection, cross-pollination and hybridizing with “Roundup Ready” corn?

    I find the information shared in the comments above(regarding the Golden Rice) to be highly disturbing, as the professor sang the praises of and crowed about the success of that particular experiment in her lecture today.

    When asked where she stood on mandatory GMO labeling, her response was that “every food we eat has been genetically altered in one way or another”(see above), and labeling would be “ridiculous.”

    The next remark she made was the one that I found to be the most telling: she proceeded to take a gratuitous cheap shot at the various labeling advocacy groups by joking that “GMO” was the moniker that “they” came-up with because “it sounds like ‘UFO'” (thereby evoking images of tinfoil hats and conspiracy kookery). I was very shocked that someone whom is ostensibly so rooted in science would feel the need to denigrate a dissenting opinion on such a personal level. If she were so secure in her convictions, wouldn’t the science-based evidence speak for itself?

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to express my opinion on this forum.

  • Thank you so much to the commenters above (excepting Robert Wager, who has the unmitigated gall to refer to himself as a scientist.)

    I have been following this ‘GMO debate’ for about 5 years now, and have come across Robert Wager on numerous occasions in the comments sections of many GMO articles. I have to say I am quite surprised at the lack of guidelines science educators have to follow (Robert Wager works for the University of British Columbia, in Canada.) Sadly, there are many ‘Robert Wagers’ on social media these days, and the vast majority seem to spend hours and hours every day supporting pro-GMO pieces and attacking anti-GMO pieces. Are these so-called scientists paid by biotechs to advocate on their behalf?

    These sorry excuses for scientists attack and villify anyone who has concerns about the biotech industry, accusing them of being ‘anti-science,’ ‘luddites,’ and all manner of unjustifiable accusations. Are there no standards in academia that prohibit this kind of blatant propaganda? Are research universities fair game for corporations to recruit ‘spokespeople’ and have them use their (seemingly undeserved) credentials tp push corporate agendas? (Is biotech the new tobacco industry?)

    I’m just flabberghasted at the blatant anti-science/pseudoscience propagated by these corporate tools! There must be some kind of code of conduct they should be held accountable to…

  • Retraction only proves one thing.
    Even the most awarded scientist can be wrong. This is a fact.
    If she was wrong on that two other occasions how can I be certain she hasn’t done it again ?
    The truth is, she distort reality when tries to convince that “her” GMO’s is good for the 3rd

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