Now is the Time to “Speak of Research”

Over the past decades we have heard many warnings about the need for scientists to engage with the public.  Unfortunately, the bulk of the scientific community has largely ignored such calls.

Fourteen years ago, in their book, “World apart: how the distance between science and journalism threatens america’s future”, Hartz and Chappell explained that  “at the heart of the matter is the value we [society] place on science itself.”    This is indeed what’s at stake.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Scientists must talk to the public because social policies need to be decided on the basis of rational grounds and facts, including issues ranging from climate change, to the goals of the space program, to the protection of endangered species, the use of embryonic stem cells, and the use of animals in research.

Many have warned that if the public and policymakers do not hear the voice of scientists, if they are not presented with the facts, it may only be a matter of time before a large segment of the public will be asking why are we doing (and why they are paying for) such work.   A recent poll by the Pew Research suggests that this might already be happening.

Society needs from the help and engagement of scientists to understand our work and its importance for future progress and advances.  The american public is, in general, ill equipped to grasp the nuance and significance of scientific developments on their own.  For example, only 25% of americans consider themselves sufficiently informed as to the “nature of scientific inquiry” to make judgements about reports they see in the media.

Our representatives have also repeatedly asked for scientists to participate more in public life.  Addressing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Congressman Sherwood Boehlert told his audience that:

“Scientists should participate actively, even avidly, in policy debates. Indeed, both as educated citizens and as professionals with relevant knowledge, scientists ought to feel obligated to contribute to policy making in their communities, in the nation and even in the wider world”. 

At another meeting of AAAS, his congressional colleague John Porter offered the view that:

“Scientists are by every measure the most respected people in America. They are listened to. But if the public and policymakers never hear your voices, never see… science, never understand its methods, the chance of its being high on the list of national priorities will be very low. […] You can sit on your fingers or you can go outside your comfort zone and get into the game and make a difference for science. Neither we, nor AAAS, nor any other group can do it all for you. Science needs you. Your country needs you. America needs you… fighting for science!”.

Indeed, it is time to go out of our comfort zone.   Granted — not all scientists are good public communicators, but they surely can learn to communicate effectively and, besides, the alternative is totally unacceptable.  A recent Editorial by Christopher Reddy in Science agrees:

“Communicating is risky, but not doing so is riskier. If scientists and journalists don’t try harder and make continual efforts to learn each other’s languages and gain confidence, knowledge will remain locked in laboratories, misunderstood, unused, or even worse, misused. When this happens, those who thirst for information are shortchanged, and the work of scientists becomes more of an interesting hobby than a critical endeavor of fundamental value to society.”   

Reddy goes on to suggests very specific ways in which universities can help scientists engage with journalists that deserve the attention from our institutions and press offices.

Much of the criticism of animal research is generated by a failure to understand the value of science in general, what the work actually entails, and how progress in some areas of medicine and basic science are critically dependent on animal research.

It is a scientists’ obligation to society to explain the importance of our work and our commitment to ethical standards.

Now is the time to “Speak of Research”.

3 responses to “Now is the Time to “Speak of Research”

  1. Universities and research facilities perhaps require designated staff to speak for the research that is conducted by the researchers affiliated with them.

    Still, it is probably true that the more open the dialogue about animal research has become the more political it has become. In politics it is always possible to use ignorance and deception to sway popular opinion for or against a certain subject.

    Is populist science the answer?

    • It is society as a whole that must decide if we are going to continue using animals in research. So it is a political issue.

      But if the public decides to stop the research they must also understand the consequences. It is the duty of scientists to explain what these are. This is a scientific issue.

      • I suppose part of the difficulty with this subject is that the term “animal research” is rather vague. Conceivably, it can refer to anything from taking a blood sample from an endangered bear to using a laboratory rat to study brain function. Some kinds of animal research are clearly more “political” than other kinds. But the distinctions seem to get lost in the vaguery of the term “animal research.”

        Science attempts to explain and further our understanding of the natural world. To eliminate all fields of animal research because it has become politically incorrect would severely limit the way science can do this. How would a zoologist do his or her work? How would a biopsychologist test theories of brain function?

        It may be true that the public can use political means to force an end to animal research. I agree with you that the public should understand the consequences associated with doing that, particularly in the all-inclusive way animal rights activists are insisting on.