Tyrone Hayes, Atrazine, Syngenta, and a little DMX

Dr. Tyrone Hayes is a professor of Biology at UC Berkley who has been at the forefront of some groundbreaking research into the developmental effects of the pesticide Atrazine on amphibians and mammals. Dr. Hayes runs the Atrazinelovers homepage, a site dedicated to educating the public about the effects of the pesticide on our environment and human health. His research and outreach have earned him the ire of many in the pesticide industry, especially from Syngenta, the company that manufactures Atrazine. The Oyster’s Garter provides a good introduction to his research here.

Below is a video of one of his talks, summarizing his research:

Recently, a controversy has been brought to light at Nature News over some of his communications with representatives of Syngenta.

Mark Schlissel, dean of biological sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, says that the “decade long” dispute between Hayes and Syngenta has “moved increasingly into the personal arena”. Hayes met with university officials on 6 August to discuss the latest incident, although Schlissel says that Hayes is not under investigation.

Syngenta asserts that Hayes’s taunting and racy e-mails put him in violation of Berkeley’s ethical standards. In a letter to the university, the company acknowledges an “ongoing difference of opinion” with Hayes over atrazine, but states that the researcher has not responded to its attempts to interact with him “on a scientific level”.

Nature News

The offending interaction took the form of several e-mails, reproduced in the complaint sent to Dr. Hayes’s university. After reading some of the e-mails, what’s clear is that someone from Syngenta needs to grow up and get some thicker skin. And of course, by publicizing the exchange, they only serve to draw more attention to Dr. Hayes’s criticisms.

That about sums it up.

~Southern Fried Scientist


  1. Matt · August 18, 2010

    I don’t Get it… Why did he send all those weird taunting emails? It seems like there’s a big part of the story missing…

  2. J. Speaks · August 21, 2010

    Honestly, Hayes seems a bit schizophrenic in the way he can seem quite down-to-earth when speaking of his research at talks/meetings, but takes on this outrageous personality over the internet. I agree his research goals and his motivations, but his aggressive nature towards the company (and the fact that he used to work for what is now Syngenta)leads me to believe there is a very heavy bias to his work, which is disconcerting. It makes it hard to accept his work as objective. A true lack of professionalism is at the core of this problem, and I think this is a perfect example of how not to act as scientists. His actions are juvenile at best.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 21, 2010

      Obviously I’m pretty pro-Hayes, but I think this adds to the growing debate about whether e-mails are private or public conversations. Many casual conversations I have with my colleagues, especially the rip-roaring no-holds-barred discussion about dissenting theories, could be regarded by outsiders as incredibly unprofessional.

      Much like the leaked climate research e-mails where using causal terms among colleagues was blown way out of proportion.

      My take on the Hayes situation is that these are people he knows (he’s not just e-mailing random people in the company) and that the e-mails are taunting, but not a breach of any ethics and should be regarded as private conversations, and certainly don’t need to be broadcasted across the pages of Science and Nature.

      And the reality is, anything that shows scientists as people instead of data crunching automatons, is good for the next generation of scientists (though it may not be good for atrazine policy).

    • J. Speaks · August 24, 2010

      I will agree and disagree with you on this one. I agree with the idea that email conversations, unless posted on a listserv, should be considered private. However, the fact of the matter is that they are not, and anything you send to someone else over email is, unfortunately, no longer under your control. Any intelligent person knows this, and understands that words written in emails are possibly at risk for being publicized (especially regarding provocative topics such as pesticides causing human health problems, or global climate change). The climate research emails being leaked should have been expected, as this field of research has been under the highest scrutiny ever since global warming finally started catching on with the public.

      Now I have to disagree with you on Hayes showing “scientists as people”. I believe the masses are fully aware that scientists are people, each unique and individual. There is certainly a percentage of ignorant folk who perceive scientists as walking computers, but it is usually because they could care less about anything past their own back yard. That is the definition of ignorance. The majority of the next generation is far from that old viewpoint. Science is growing in interest, especially marine biology. Unfortunately, work ethic seems to be in an inverse relationship with interest, as the majority of college freshmen who want to be marine biologists realize halfway through that, “Oh shit! I have to do all this work? You mean I don’t just get to play with dolphins?!” But honestly I see nothing wrong with that. People realize that what we do is hard work, and that it takes a certain kind of person to trudge merrily through it.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 24, 2010

      I don’t know, there’s a lot of misplaced anti-science backlash both socially and politically in the USA, and a lot of that comes from, for example, people thinking scientists don’t care about the animals they’re working with (I’ve even been told that we torture them for fun), want to kill fetuses, are creating conspiracies to make money (which I still don’t understand because, really, how much are we profiting from global warming?), creating mutant plants to take over the world, etc. I’ve also been told the marine biologists just want to shut down all the fisheries so they can play with their dolphins.

      I think what it boils down to in the political arena is that people think of science as a singular entity and not as a collection of disparate people.

  3. William · August 23, 2010

    What makes you “pretty pro-Hayes”? Is it just knee-jerk anti-pesticide sentiment? Even as an environmental toxicologist who has zero love for pesticides, I don’t get that. I am quite familiar with the research on all sides, I’ve worked on atrazine, I’ve worked for a prof who sits on a science advisory panel reviewing Hayes’ work and I have a good friend who’s studied atrazine’s endocrine effects at EPA. With all that exposure, I’m not convinced whether Hayes is right or wrong (and many great scientists I respect immensely are not either). The problem is, there very well may be something there, but Hayes is more concerned with the attention and his ego than the science. I only care about one thing – that the best science is performed and acted upon, but all this other nonsense just gets in the way.

    I’d be inclined to agree with you about the email privacy issues, but you seem to be drastically mischaracterizing the content of the emails (if they are truly emails he wrote). They are beyond what is simply taunting and only in a very specific context could they be really be innocuous. Are you really saying that after scoring a point in a debate with colleagues you’ve quoted rap lyrics about how you just raped them? It seems to me that the way to convince other scientists and the regulatory community is to have the best data, not the best raps.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 24, 2010

      I’m not, generally, anti-pesticide at all. Many of my posts about misplaced activism in the green movement focus on the pestcide/organic debate.

      I’m pro-Hayes because I like the guy. As a scientist, he’s no worse than any other scientist working at his level. His science is pretty solid, but, as with all research, there’s always space for expansion. More importantly, I think he reaches people who don’t often think of themselves as future scientist. That probably has a greater developmental impact than most chemical exposures.

      I don’t think I mischaracterized his e-mails (or really characterized them at all – I just said they were taunting and linked to the text). Sure they’re rude, crass, graphic, but they’re also a private conversation. You’re saying you’ve never had a private conversation that your wouldn’t want to be public? The e-mails are not the central point of the debate or meant to convince anyone, but yes, of course they’re not going to win over anyone, that’s what data is for.

      And there is another group beyond the scientists and regulatory community that science also has a duty to educate, the public. I’d argue that the second youtube clip I posted, which is most certainly the best rap about atrazine out there, has probably reached a larger audience than any peer-reviewed publication.

  4. Tim · August 25, 2010

    A critical point that seems to be missed by most folks is that Hayes has refused to allow the US EPA to review his data. Why would he do that? Other labs routinely make their data available for examination.

  5. Tim · August 25, 2010

    One source is a letter from EPA dated May 17, 2010 that can be found at this website:


    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 25, 2010

      Maybe I’m not reading it right, but I don’t see anywhere in that letter any indication that “Hayes has refused to allow the US EPA to review his data.” Being unable to replicate the results due to low sample size is not the same thing.

  6. Tim · August 25, 2010

    Take another look at the EPA letter. Here are the relevant quotes:

    “EPA science staff could not properly account for the sample sizes and study experimental design used by the Berkely researchers.”

    In other words, Hayes has not supplied them with sufficient information to verify the number of animals tested (sample size), nor sufficient information on how the test animals were treated and organized into groups, and so on (experimental design).

    When EPA says that

    “We were unable to complete any independent analysis to support the study’s conclusion.”

    they mean that they were unable to read the records of observations, re-enter the results and reanalyze the study data. They do not mean that they have tried to repeat his experiment.

    Keep in mind that unlike you or I, EPA must be very diplomatic in the way that it says things. Sometimes this detracts from clarity.

    Admittedly, one possible alternative explanation for EPA’s statement is that Hayes’ work is not adequately documented to allow anybody, including Hayes, to do a post-facto interpretation of the study records. So perhaps I should amend my statement to be that Hayes is unwilling or unable to provide a sufficient record of his studies for others to evaluate his results.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 25, 2010

      That is perhaps a more restrained interpretation. In my mind there is a big difference between refusing to provide data and being unable to provide data.

      But of course, you did miss one other possibility. The EPA lab may not have had the funding, personnel, resources, or equipment, to reproduce the experiments, and thus could not account for either the sample size (it’s bigger than they have the resources to handle) or the experimental design (it’s time consuming, costly, or required equipment they don’t have). Unless there were serious concerns about the quality of this particular experiment, I would not expect the EPA to attempt a full scale replication.

      I’m not saying your wrong, just that this letter alone is not sufficient accuse Hayes of withholding data.

  7. Tim · August 25, 2010

    As far as EPA is concerned, if a lab can’t produce for inspection the data backing a report for inspection, the study cannot be used for regulatory purposes. I’m sure that you would agree with this policy.

    It is hard to believe that if he wanted to, Hayes would not be able to explain his work and provide data to EPA staff in sufficient detail for them to perform their own analysis of his results. If Hayes’ records were really that incomplete, how could he check his own work and have confidence in his final conclusions? These are, after al,l studies that have stimulated a massive debate, and Hayes has accused everybody and his brother of failing to disclose the true results of studies contradicting his findings.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 25, 2010

      But the letter does not say he couldn’t produce the data for inspection, it says they EPA could not account for the sample size or experimental design, a statement which we both acknowledge is very politic, but that is also vague and has multiple interpretations, some of which are sinister and some are mundane.

  8. Tim · August 25, 2010

    It is pretty much irrelevant whether Hayes’ motivations are based on the mundane or the sinister. The question is whether Hayes’ results and study interpretation are sufficiently trustworthy to drive a dispute that continues to this day. Clearly you should draw your own conclusions in this regard.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 25, 2010

      But I wasn’t talking about Hayes’ motivations, I was talking about the content of the letter, which could refer either to the reproducibility of Hayes’ results or the ability/will of the EPA to replicate those results.

      The experiment in question involved 540 animals (6 dosings of 30 animals each by 3 replications) for the developmental experiments. While the EPA could certainly redo his experiment, why would they when they already have other equally sound atrazine exposure experiments running?

      To me, the EPA letter reads as a diplomatic way of saying “we didn’t attempt to replicate his experiment, but here are the other experiments we did which may or may not contradict Hayes’ results” Claiming the response in this letter reveals that Hayes is withholding information is simply not supported.

      To characterize the atrazine dispute as being driven by this study is a bit misleading. A massive review of atrazine’s impacts in aquatic ecosystems was publish in 2001, the year before Hayes’ study, and doesn’t cite any of Hayes’ work, yet still raises major issues with the pesticide (IMPACTS OF ATRAZINE IN AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS). Hayes’ outspoken nature has driven him to the forefront of the debate and made him a lightning rod for criticism, but that doesn’t mean the atrazine debate lives or dies on his research alone.

  9. MattK · August 25, 2010

    I had previously heard of Hayes’ leopard frog study but was only peripherally aware of the controversy before reading the nature news article. Hayes’ does indeed seem crazy (like a fox?) and is very amusing. If he is right and Syngenta is being as dishonest and underhanded as he suggests then that would be much more obscene than a few racy rap lyrics. Anyway, there is an email that Hayes wrote that speaks to the very issue of whether Hayes provided raw data to the EPA. It begins on page 84 of that published bunch but the money quote is on page 86-87:

    “In Attachment 6, you will see the US EPA’s official statement from REDACTED, dated Sept 24, 2003. This letter was filed with the University of California. Note that the first line of the letter states, ‘Tyrone, Although you are not required to provide EPA with any information, you have been very cooperative and have shared both the raw data and standard operating procedures from your research. Additionally, you have spent a considerable amount of time helping the office of pesticide program to understand the significance of your data and you have provided insightful reviews of similar research efforts.'”

    I don’t know if this is talking about the same data. I do agree with SFS that Tim’s interpretation is strained to say the least.

    admin note: edited to fix line breaks and add block quote

  10. Tim · August 26, 2010

    I don’t know which study the 2003 letter from EPA refers to either. If you don’t believe that EPA means what it said in the letter that it sent to Representative Winters this year, so be it. I have heard directly from the mouths of EPA officials that they have visited Hayes lab twice to try to work through the data on gonadal abnormalities in Xenopus that was reported in the study which he publish (and is the cornerstone for the debate about effects of Atrazine on amphibians). On both visits the lab was either unwilling or unable to decipher the data so that it could be understood by the EPA experts. So, I’d say that it is debatable whether Hayes shared his data or not.

    It is attractive to see Hayes as a Don Quixote tilting at the windmill of an evil corporation. But I know many of the researchers that Hayes has claimed are henchmen for Syngenta. If you believe what he says, there is a vast conspiracy of university researchers, private testing labs, and EPA officials who have been bought off, and for this reason only, disagree with his work. The university researchers come from the US, Canada, Germany, and South Africa, so it is an international conspiracy.
    Whatever else he says, I know that this part is false. So I don’t see Hayes as Don Quixote. Anyway, we should look at the dependability of science, and not qualities of the researcher.

    One last point, and then I have no more to say:

    If EPA went to a laboratory to review the studies that suggested that Atrazine does not have effect X, and the laboratory staff was not able to produce the data leading to this conclusion, and could not explain their analysis so that the results could be verified, that laboratory would receive extremely negative publicity. It is proper that Hayes lab be held to the same standard.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 26, 2010

      I see what you did there. That was a well-executed bait and switch.

      First off, I’m not disputing the EPA letter, I’m disputing your interpretation of the letter. I’ve also seen the papers that refute some of his claims, some of them are good, some of them are not, the issue hasn’t been completely resolved.

      I never said Hayes’ research was perfect, nor that I thought this was some vast conspiracy. For your last point, I still have not seen any evidence that Hayes’ lab “was not able to produce the data leading to this conclusion, and could not explain their analysis so that the results could be verified”. One the contrary, the only evidence I’ve seen regarding Hayes’ interactions with the EPA is a letter saying that he did provide raw data and was very helpful and informative. I think you perhaps have an ax to grind and aren’t really interested in considering the alternative point, but you are, of course, welcome to continue grinding your ax here.

      Finally, you might want to re-read Cervantes picaresco epic. Don Quixote has illusions of chivalry and decided to attack helpless windmills because he thought they were monstrous giants. “Tilting at windmills” means attacking an imaginary enemy. By your accusations, Hayes actually is a Quixotic hero.

  11. Tim · August 26, 2010

    No axe to grind here. And no intention to bait and switch.

    I do not want to end my participation in this discussion with the impression that I misrepresented the EPA letter. Perhaps it would help to clarify the meaning of the EPA letter if the question that was asked of EPA and answer are presented together.

    Rep. Winters had asked if EPA had received “a complete, transparent set of raw data which could be interpreted and analyzed by the EPA and used in generating a full evaluation of his work.”

    Donald Brady, Director of the Environmental Fate and Effects Division at EPA answered

    “I regret that the EPA science staff in the Office of Pesticide Programs’ EFED could not properly account for the sample sizes and study design reportedly used by the Berkeley researchers. As a result, we were unable to complete any independent analysis to support the study’s conclusions.”

    Does my interpretation of the letter still seem wrong?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 26, 2010

      It seems as though we’ve come full circle and have arrived back at the beginning of this discussion. Like I said before, your interpretation isn’t wrong, it’s just not the only possible interpretation. The EPA’s wording is vague, but the actor in their response is not Hayes but the EPA.

      It wasn’t “Hayes could not provide us with … ” but “The EPA science staff in the Office of Pesticide Programs’ EFED could not … ”

      From a semantics perspective, this implies to me that the failure to conduct the research rests on the EPA’s actions, not Hayes’. It’s a classic rhetorical device to use the actor in a sentence to assign blame for the actions, thus in many US history books you find parallel statements such as “On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.” and “On August 6, 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.” See how one assigns blame and the other does not?

      If I were writing that letter, and being diplomatic about accusing Hayes without directly accusing him, the one thing I wouldn’t do was make my department the actor in the statement of failure.

      But at this point I think we’re just talking in circles.

  12. Tim · August 26, 2010

    That’s quite an elaborate interpretation of what seems to me fairly straight-forward. But as you say, we are now talking in circles. Hopefully it is at least clear that I have not intentionally misrepresented anything. Thanks for the discussion.

  13. MattK · August 26, 2010

    I don’t know if the interpretation is wrong or not. It still seems like a leap. The representative asked two questions: 1) did the EPA get all of the raw data, and 2) did the EPA perform its own analysis. The answer to the second one was ‘no’ but the first question was not answered. There are a ton of interpretations of the statement. One might be that the person who did some important part of the analysis was not available at the time to explain all the details. Another might be that no serious attempt was made and the director of the division didn’t want to simply say “we didn’t get around to it”. There are many others.

    I also wonder about the statement

    “…the data on gonadal abnormalities in Xenopus that was reported in the study which he publish (and is the cornerstone for the debate about effects of Atrazine on amphibians).

    How did the Xenopus work become the ‘cornerstone’? I already mentioned that my familiarity with this issue is limited but, as I said, the Leopard frog work seemed more prominent to me (and relevant, being a native species and of some conservation concern in certain N.American districts).

  14. TomTom · August 27, 2010

    Ok first of all I will admit I know nothing about the science involved.

    It has been interesting reading these news stories and the focus has been on some bad words. Which I thought ok whatever, we all have our moments etc. BUt then i actually read all the emails…wow. It’s not just some rap lyrics and foul mouthed antics…the guy is a nutcase!

    He reminds me of like a David Koresh type who has built up a cult and followers. In Dr. Hayes emails he talks about how he is “the one” and in messianic terms. About a chosen destiny and how he is fulfilling it. Also about how his fight against the herbacide has made him rich and a rock star/icon.

    How does someone like that stay committed to science and not be incredibly vested in the outcome of the results?

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