Issue 14 / 18 April 2016

“SCIENTISTS are hopeless at communicating,” claimed a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald last year.

To be fair, the article, by microbiologist Ben Wade, didn’t exactly say that, but pretty much everywhere you look these days there are calls for scientists to lift their game in communicating research to the public.

Better community understanding of science would have to improve outcomes in fields from health to environmental management, and scientists have a key role to play in achieving that.

When controversy flares around, for example, an issue like climate change, scientific input is essential to help ensure we make the best possible decisions about the way forward.

But engaging in these kinds of public debates doesn’t always come naturally to scientists, and it isn’t necessarily risk-free.

In a recent paper, social scientists from the University of Nottingham in the UK examine the question of how scientists can responsibly raise awareness of potentially controversial issues in science.

Using the emerging field of synthetic biology as their case study, the researchers ask when is it best for scientists to engage with the public – “before or after people have become aware of the issue and begun talking about it”?

In other words, should scientists lead or follow? These researchers can see arguments both ways.

Early engagement with the public could help to guide research and its applications, ensuring these align with society’s needs and values, they write, but it could also spark unfounded hopes and fears.

“Who decides which issues – risks, benefits, uncertainties – should be brought to public attention and how?” they ask.

And what are the risks to the scientists themselves? “Will they be branded ‘advocates’ or ‘activists’ and lose their neutrality, independence and credibility?”

Those are serious dilemmas even if you question, as I would, whether any human being can ever be truly “neutral” about anything, even science.

In fact, these researchers quote climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson who says there is no such thing as a non-political scientist: “Scientists by their nature are being political, whether they engage or do not engage in the wider debates,” he once said in an interview.

Silence, in other words, is also a political act.

Climate science has attracted more than its share of controversy in recent years, and some scientists who have taken public positions have probably lived to regret it.

Synthetic biology, by contrast, has attracted little public attention, despite the obvious potential for controversy around technologies designed to create artificial life or genetic material and a surge in commercial interest in the field.

So, given what these researchers describe as the “almost deadly silence” in the mainstream media, would scientists in the field be best advised to keep their heads below the parapet, at least until the public starts to show an interest?

Tempting as that option might be, it doesn’t seem like the most ethical, or even the most pragmatic, course of action.

Letting the public in early on scientific and ethical debates is likely to deliver the best outcomes for society and for the scientists themselves.

While it’s true vested interests can seek to manipulate public opinion – and we’re right to be wary of that – misinformation can more easily take hold in a culture of secrecy than in one of openness and transparency.

The bottom line is that no human endeavour should be immune from scrutiny, not even science, and it’s in scientists’ interests to be active participants in that process, rather than passive recipients of it.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

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