The Scientist Who Took on a Leading Herbicide Manufacturer

Rachel Aviv, reporting for the New Yorker on Tyrone Hayes’s research on the herbicide atrazine:

Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, and during that time scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals. The company documents show that, while Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him, as he had long suspected. Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. She observed that Hayes “grew up in world (S.C.) that wouldn’t accept him,” “needs adulation,” “doesn’t sleep,” was “scarred for life.” She wrote, “What’s motivating Hayes?—basic question.”

I arrived at UC Berkeley a few years after Hayes had cut ties with Syngenta, and rumors of this sort were definitely in the air. Couple that with other controversial university funders—Novartis and BP among them—and you can see how it was an interesting place to be at the time.

The unsealing of the Syngenta documents isn’t new, but Aviv has used them along with extensive reporting to craft a riveting narrative of the whole saga.

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