Esa, on the Importance of Scientific Discourse

May 8, 2009

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of restoring science to its proper place. This statement was as heartening to me as to any other scientist, but I fear that the unspoken premises behind it may ultimately prove detrimental to the goal. It is all too easy to fault the previous administration for the recent descent of science in the public eye. However, the issue is vastly more complex, and a change in government policy cannot alone alter the public perception of science.

There are other forces working against scientific progress. For example, in his commentary, Wolpe states, “Science tends to be portrayed by the media in extremes, as a series of sensationalized discoveries punctuated by conflicts and scandals” (p. 1023). This is a valid point of contention between scientists and mass media in an age where networks are dismissing their science reporters, replacing them with young journalists, so eager to get “both sides of the story” that they miss the fact that one side is complete bunk. Unfortunately, just as blame does not lie solely with the government, scientists cannot automatically demonize journalists for vandalizing their ivory towers. Scientists must accept some of the responsibility and, in doing so, come down from those towers and participate in public discourse.

Numerous polls have shown that the public is severely lacking in its scientific literacy and, in a democracy such as ours, this translates into poor science policy decisions, which, not surprisingly, makes for frustrated scientists in turn. Nonetheless, scientists seem to do little to enhance public understanding of the workings of science or the meaning of scientific discoveries. In return for this silence, the public grows increasingly suspicious of science, calling the ethics of the institution into question.

According to Wolpe, scientists employ a number of arguments to avoid discussion of their ethical code in the public forum. These include claiming lack of ethical training, scientific relevance, and personal responsibility, complaints about the arbitrary nature of ethics and the tendency of the public to shy away from new technologies, as well as the argument that gaining knowledge is a worthy end in itself. I would contend, however, that scientific discourse should be equally important to the scientist as his or her research.

I would like to remind those scientists who claim their lack of professional ethical training absolves them of the responsibility to take part in an ethical dialogue that a human subjects ethics course is taught in every NIH-funded graduate program and all scientists have come face-to-face with their ethical decisions when presenting to their institutional review board. Nothing would ever be accomplished if we left all of our decision-making to those with a Ph.D. in ethics. Furthermore, one does not just happen upon a career as a scientist; it takes passion and a great deal of effort. Therefore, it is difficult to see how one could avoid confronting his basic ethical principles in the process. Finally, as an aside, even if these scientists are correct in their assertion that they have no business discussing the ethics of their work due to their lack of formal ethical training, they are certainly better qualified to take part in the conversation than some of the celebrities who have passed judgment on scientific research in the media.

This brings us to the issue of personal responsibility. I wish to speak also to those who believe that their moral obligation ends with their assertion that knowledge is a value in itself, and, as such, its pursuit should not be questioned or debated. What good is gaining knowledge when it is fed to the public in headlines, twisted by journalists who do not fully understand the science behind the articles they have read, and in sound-bites, perverted by spokespeople wishing to profit from their own version of the truth? How can those who actually understand the science behind the issues involved remain silent while Jenny McCarthy deals a crushing blow both to parent’s self-esteem and children’s health as she denounces vaccines based on her “Mommy Instinct”? Those who are truly dedicated to their work and to the pursuit of knowledge ought to make sure that the results of their efforts are effectively communicated to the public.

However, there are still those scientists who would argue that taking part in public discourse concerning the ethical issues brought up by their research is not in their job description. To them, I say: argue with the dollar. The simple fact of the matter is that, as more scientists are willing to discuss scientific and ethical issues openly, the public will gain a greater understanding, trust, and appreciation of their work, and as public interest in science grows, so does public funding of science.

Unfortunately, as important as scientific discourse is to the ultimate success of science, the current system is not set up to reward those who take part in it. According to a survey described by Wolpe, “although most [geneticists] thought that scientists should be more actively involved in public outreach and science policy, many felt ill-equipped themselves and unsupported by their peers and institutions in assuming this responsibility” (p. 1025). Those scientists who do speak out find themselves under constant scrutiny by their peers and pressure from their institutions to be sure they represent those institutions in a favorable light. On top of this, for academics wishing to receive tenure, the type of scientific discourse with the public that we have been discussing, which, to do well, takes as much time as publishing an article, is typically thought of as “community service” and is considered in tenure decisions far after activities related to research and teaching.

What Taylor describes as a lack of research sharing only compounds the problem. In his article, he encourages the scientific community as a whole to adopt the guidelines set forth by the International Society for Stem Cell Research—their central tenet being that “scientific collaboration and mutual trust among researchers are vital to the success and advancement of science and should be encouraged (p. 398).” Before reading this article, I would have believed this proposition to be unnecessary, assuming all scientists already followed such practices, knowing that science distances itself from pseudoscience based on its transparency and reproducibility.

According to Taylor, I am apparently still a bit naïve. Many labs and institutions discourage their researchers from sharing data prior to publication, and often other researchers are denied access to data and materials even after the article comes out. In the short-term, this policy clearly benefits those withholding information—in terms of influencing economics and scientific impact. However, in the long-run, a paper published furtively, though its initial impact was great, may have had a more lasting impact and been more sound if it had been discussed among the scientific community prior to publication, giving the author time to shore up his arguments and giving others the opportunity to test their own hypotheses within the new paradigm. Besides, how can we expect the public to trust science when scientists cannot cooperate openly and ethically among themselves?

As part of the human race, scientists have as much right as anyone to discuss the ethics of a new technology. As a part of the human race that understands how and why many of these new technologies work, they have an obligation to participate in these discussions. In fact, I believe that having such dialogues would be to the advantage of the scientific community and that scientists should be encouraged by their institutions to do so. It is time for scientists to stop hiding behind caricatures of themselves as nerds in white coats and glasses and learn to inform the public, not with aloof jargon, but in terms it can understand, of the importance of science.

Taylor, Patrick L. “Research sharing, ethics, and public benefit.” Nature Biotechnology 25.4 (2007): 398-401.
Wolpe, Paul Root. “Reasons scientists avoid thinking about ethics.” Cell 125 (2006): 1023-1025.


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