Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hermaphroditic frogs, hip-hop science & corporate culture

In 1997 UC Berkley endocrinologist Tyrone Hayes was contracted by a subsidiary of Syngenta corporation to do research on the widely used agricultural chemical atrazine. Not surprisingly, the company wasn't pleased when Hayes concluded that the chemical might affect male reproductive development in frogs. Prevented by the terms of the contract from publishing the results, Hayes waited for the contract to expire, repeated an expanded version of the research he had done under contract and published the results. Thus began what has become a decade long battle between Hayes and Syngenta.

Hayes, who has always admitted to wearing two hats -- that of objective scientist and that of impassioned activist -- has long been recognized as a character. As in the clip below, he frequently peppers his academic talks with a rap delivery.

It turns out, however, that his hip-hop style has a bit of a gangsta flavor. For years Hayes has been sending rap emails with what is being described as lewd and inappropriate comments to various Syngenta employees. Now, in an attempt to discredit Hayes and his research, Syngenta has released the documents and actively worked to construct an ethical controversy.

Atrazine has been banned in the EU and, with the EPA re-re-restudying its allow-ability in the US, Syngenta seems to have shot off both barrels; attacking both Hayes and his research. It seems that the blood sport of American politics is beginning to affect its science as well.

For those interested in more, a brief clip of an academic talk by Hayes is below and here are links to the legal complaint against Hayes, the emails he sent, articles questioning the ethics of his actions in Nature and Science, and an article outlining the early history of the relationship between Hayes and Syngenta (which dates back to 1997) can be found here.

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