Agency hinders public discussion

Academic presentations must be allowed without regard to political concerns.

So much for academic freedom at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Last week, the agency decided to uninvite the keynote speaker from its February conference, University of California-Berkeley professor Tyrone Hayes, claiming Hayes’ research has already been presented and doesn’t warrant the keynote spot. Unfortunately, the agency’s underlying motivation appears to be more political than academic.

The research Hayes was planning to present suggests atrazine, a popular herbicide and pesticide in Minnesota, has detrimental effects on frog development – a finding of particular interest in Minnesota, as school children discovered frog abnormalities in certain areas in the state nine years ago. Also, Hayes has four new scientific papers approved for publication – which invalidates the claim that his findings are out of date.

Instead, the agency balked at the idea that Hayes’ presentation might be critical of the government’s handling of atrazine. In e-mails Hayes exchanged with the conference coordinator, he was informed his topic was of concern to the state Department of Agriculture and was asked to change the title of his speech to alleviate political power plays. Hayes rightly refused.

After receiving hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and requests from environmental advocacy groups, the agency has reinvited Hayes to speak – but not as the keynote, which might not be enough to persuade the professor to present at all, and with good reason.

It is wrong to keep researchers from presenting their peer-reviewed academic findings based on politics. If the agency is worried Hayes’ findings might influence legislation, it is a sad day for pollution control and the political process in Minnesota.

Legislators should not be encouraged to ignore science when making decisions, but this problem seems to plague state legislatures across the country as well as the U.S. Congress.

Hayes should never have been uninvited to the conference – that his research is old news is just a thinly veiled excuse to keep him at bay politically. Academic freedom must be placed ahead of government agencies and special interests.