Professor Pamela Ronald is more popularly known as the “public face” of GMOs, at least to U.S. viewers.  Known for staunchly defending the GMO (genetically modified organisms) platform, Professor Ronald became a favorite interview subject of mainstream media. She gave interviews to the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Economist, NPR and other global media outlets.

Very straightforward, sometimes disparaging others’ opinions on the air, for instance, calling New York Times Chief Food Writer Mark Bittman a “scourge on science” who “couches his nutty views in reasonable-sounding verbiage”.

Professor Ronald’s fight against anti-GMO advocates became her second career; her first career started out as a University of California in Davis Professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, book author, and board member and contributor to the blog BioFortified.

Such a distinguished career should have prepared her for the fall from grace thereafter.

Will You Stake Your Reputation on Your GMO Beliefs?

As a Buddhist friend told me, “Karma has its way of bringing balance to the world”, referring to the “Law of Cause and Effect”. If you released something good to the world, then you get back that good gesture a hundredfold. If you unleashed something bad, well – my guess is as good as yours in terms of the outcome.

Pamela Ronald is now fighting for her good name and the “stellar reputation” she has gained in the scientific community after her scientific research has been questioned by her peers. In 2013, her laboratory at UC Davis retracted two scientific papers (Lee et al. 2009 and Han et al 2011), with a third being questioned also by researchers for accuracy and veracity.

The two retracted papers are from her research program focused on how rice plants detect certain bacterial pathogens.

The first retraction was from her first paper submitted to the journal PLOS ONE (Han et al 2011). The paper was retracted on January 29, 2013 but was only reported by the blog Retraction Watch on September 2013.

The second retraction was from the journal Science, and was reported a month after the first incident (October 11, 2013). This retraction was accompanied by a long explanation from Ronald in the official blog of Scientific American. In the article, Ronald blamed the work errors on two unnamed former lab members from Korea and Thailand. Retraction Watch reported the error and commented that “Pamela Ronald does the right thing again”.

However, what everyone seemed not to notice is that the retractions done by Ronald were based on very grave issues regarding her work. A German group questioned the credibility of her research as far back as 2012, saying that the research could not be replicated. In fact, the German scientists said that they could not repeat Ronald’s discoveries written in a third Ax21 paper (Danna et al 2011); they suggested that the likely reason they could not be replicated was that her samples were contaminated (Mueller et al 2012).

Ronald’s other assertion that two of her former foreign lab members who departed were to blame for the inaccuracies in the research is also being questioned. In her blog entry in the Scientific American explaining what happened to the retraction, she gave a detailed description of events (included in the footnotes of the article), admitting there were two mislabeling errors along with a host of failures to establish and repeat experimental conditions, as well as failing two complementation tests. These confirm what the German scientific group was trying to say.

But most of all, Ronald tried to initially pass off the blame to the two foreign lab members for the data inaccuracies. This is highly unusual, especially for researchers, since she was the head of the project and should be accountable for her subordinates’ work, even before they released the study to the critics and the scientific community.

Who Takes Overall Responsibility for a Scientific Treatise?

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) published the first and most widely followed principles of authorial ethics. Quoting their principles regarding authorship: “Authorship confers credit and has important academic, social, and financial implications. Authorship also implies responsibility and accountability for published work.”

Moreover, Columbia University’s guidelines on responsible authorship and peer review clearly state: “Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.”

Finally, Science, the publisher of Ronald’s retracted Lee et al 2009 paper, has this authorship policy: “The senior author from each group is required to have examined the raw data their group has produced.”

So, are you convinced that Pamela Ronald deserves her moniker for being the “face of GMO” and is principled enough to be emulated by any researcher worth their salt – or their word? Share your opinions in the comments below.