The (wo)man in the white lab coat. A pop culture symbol. A mad scientist. Big Pharma. Curing disease. Animal testing. Ethics. Morality.
Lots of things spring to mind when picturing a researcher at work in the laboratory. Some people understand that what we do pushes the limit of human understanding and is hopefully for the betterment of mankind. Others think we are toying with gods work, are nefarious in our plans and don’t give a toss about animals of any sort. Science is neither good nor bad but can be used for either.
It varies largely on the country we look at. Germany, for example, has a high scientific literacy rate among the general population in comparison to the UK. A greater emphasis is placed on the importance of basic scientific thinking throughout primary and secondary education.
Communicating science to the public is always important but especially so in countries where the scientific process is not as well understood or taught.
This category will contain hot topic articles about issues regarding scientific breakthroughs and methods which are often misunderstood, challenged by the vocal minority for the wrong reasons or misrepresented by the media
As an added note: please don’t obtain your scientific updates through tabloid papers – the stories are almost always twisted or completely farcical. The Scientist and New Scientist are both great sources of bite-size science updates from multiple research areas.
Why is it important
Huge amounts of scientific funding come from the public purse. I myself am funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) which is the largest UK public funder of bioscience.
In an age of such rapid scientific and technological advancement we risk widening the gap between scientists and the public.
Considering millions of pounds from the taxpayer fund UK research, it is only right that the public be informed directly regarding new breakthroughs as well as future directions for specific areas of research. The public should be observers of research and not left in the dark.
The majority of policy makers and people in positions of power that can change the regulation of science are themselves not scientists. It is extremely important that a clear relationship based on transparency is maintained between scientists and non-scientists so that policy makers, who often succumb to the will of misinformed members of the public, do not bombard researchers with suffocating new regulations that harm research in this country.
Regulation and tight control when handled correctly is a good thing. All studies must have ethical approval. We can’t just perform studies for the sake of it. There must be a clear, reasoned argument for doing so. Anyone performing studies on animals, for example, has intensive training in surgical techniques, animal husbandry and behaviour and everything else to minimise animal use and suffering (this is a topic I will be covering at a later date including the importance of the Three Rs – Replacement, Reduction and Refinement). This can only be a good thing. Animal welfare is put first. Collecting data comes second. Any good in vivo scientist will tell you this.
Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly, public trust in scientists is decreasing and this is shaping policy makers attitudes towards the negative. We are now seeing more regulations put in place that will actively harm research efforts without providing any clear benefits. There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and massive problems can arise.
What happens when we don’t communicate
Public trust in science falls and pseudoscience permeates the public mindset which influences policy makers.
.The world at the moment is an odd place. Humans have never lived longer. Cancer survival rates are better than they have ever been. Diseases that used to ravage and kill are now under control or all but vanquished. All of this is due to scientific advancement.
Why then do we have large parts of the population denying evolution, claiming vaccines do not prevent disease, denying that climate change is a human-driven process and that animal use in research does nothing for the benefit of humans or other animals. Increasingly, we are seeing pseudoscientifc ways of thinking permeating the discussion. It’s against this anti-science backdrop that we now have vocal groups challenging the validity of the science and ethics of animal research – the basis of almost all medical advancements in the last 100 years.
Clearly there has been a collapse in communication (or perhaps it was never fully established). Worryingly this sort of thinking isn’t restricted to general members of the public but also pervades policy makers. The people who decide what we research, how we do it and how much money we can have to achieve this.
Some of their view points are truly shocking for people with such responsibility – most of these examples come from the USA.
Back in 2012 U.S Rep Paul Brown produced a laughable rant at Liberty Baptist Church:
.“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old”
Now I don’t know about you but considering this man sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, it’s a little bit worrying. I’m all for religious freedom – believe what you want to believe but at some point you have to look at the cold hard facts. There is no evidence at all that the earth is 9,000 years old but overwhelming evidence that it is much MUCH older. Religion and science do not have to be mutually exclusive but people like this make that hard to believe.
Worse still, on that same committee, the science committee, these sort of view points are widespread.
In a shocking misunderstanding of what a ‘green house gas’ is, republican Dana Rohrabacher suggests cutting down the rain forests will halt green house gas emissions. Considering rain forests absorb a third of all man made emissions, cutting them down would be a catastrophically bad idea. Again, this man is on the House Science Committee. How?! How has this happened. This pseudoscientific outspokenness seems to be more pronounced in America than the UK but these sort of individuals still reside here – they may not think trees produce green houses gasses but they still aren’t aware of the daily workings of a lab or how we conduct our studies.
There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and problems can arise. The people who determine this balance need not be scientists (at least some should be) but the more they understand the scientific process and the more scientifically educated they are the better and the easier this balance can be maintained. We cannot allow a situation to arise where more and more individuals (like those discussed above) sit on science regulation boards.
Most importantly of all- as these policy makers are influenced hugely by the public perception of science, the public needs to be closer to what we do and actively engaged with.
So how do we communicate?
The good news is that some individuals in positions of power know the importance of science communication and have asked scientists directly to take responsibility. John Porter, a former Republican congressman, told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that…
“… if the public and policymakers never hear your voices, never see science, never understand its methods, the chance of it 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 … Science needs you. Your country needs you. America (*cough* UK *cough*) needs you fighting for science!”
This is an excerpt from a brilliant article in Cell addressing Animal Research in Neuroscience and how we can better inform the public of it’s necessity.
We can engage the public in a variety of forums: Open public seminars, webinars, website (like this one) and university open days to name just a few.
This is an opening to the Science Communication Section. Check this space soon for further articles. The next article will be looking at the use of animals in research.