Friday, February 19, 2010

The bridge between scientists and the society

This is one issue that I wanted to write about, since when I read one essay about the disadvantage scientists have when competing with all-so-sure politicians and policy-makers. I could never find the time to organize my ideas, but this week two articles came to my rescue: the first is an editorial at Science written by Peter Agre and Alan I. Leshner:
The ability of science to deliver on its promise of practical and timely solutions to the world's problems does not depend solely on research accomplishments but also on the receptivity of society to the implications of scientific discoveries. That receptivity depends on the public's attitude about what science is finding and on how it perceives the behavior of scientists themselves.

Inappropriate behavior by scientists also weakens the bridge between science and society, at times to a degree out of proportion to the incidents. Widely publicized examples of scientific misconduct, or even mere accusations of misconduct, can tarnish the image and diminish the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise. Likewise, undisclosed conflicts of interest, whether real or apparent, can call into question the integrity of the whole scientific community. Scientists also jeopardize the credibility of science by overinterpreting or misstating scientific facts. (...) Scientists should not tolerate threats to the integrity of science, whether they come from outside the scientific community or from within it.

The second is a blog post at New Scientist penned by Michael Brooks:
Should scientists have a special voice when it comes to deciding government policy? Last night Robert May, the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, set out his views. The answer? No.

May, a former president of the Royal Society, reckons that the job of scientists is to lay out the scientific facts and - importantly - the uncertainties. After that, it's up to the public to decide what to do about them. Scientists can and should make their opinions clear - but only as citizens. Being a scientist doesn't give you the right to lord it over the rest of the population.

It's worth taking May seriously because he has a pedigree in this. He managed the UK's approach to using stem cells, and encouraged the scientists involved to simply lay out the facts and let the politicians do their job, rather than lobby for a particular outcome. The result was a decision that pleased British scientists and the British public.

In the US, where the spread of public opinion on the matter was no different from that in the UK, a perception that scientists wanted a particular outcome politicised the debate. This  undoubtedly contributed to the formation of very different laws on stem cell research in the United States, a legacy that crippled US science.
Of course we must defend our political convictions and engage with the public since, after all, we are also part of the society. But we must make it clear whether we are communicating as scientists or as citizens. Even as scientists, there are really just a few subjects where we can claim authority... Frustrating as it is, "credibility is scientist's to lose".

O Homem, que, nesta terra miserável, mora entre feras, sente inevitável necessidade de também ser fera.
The Man, that, in this miserable land, lives amongst the beasts, feels an irresistible necessity of becoming a beast himself. Augusto dos Anjos

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