Thursday, August 27, 2015

Science and Society: Be inclusive not insular.

Submitted By: Sumantra Chatterjee
Department/Affiliation: McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine
                                      Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

A few days ago I found myself sitting next to a news reporter at a scientific meeting who lamented that all this beautiful work done by scientists is never explained properly to the public and how the gap between science and general society is increasing. That got me thinking—are scientists becoming too insular? What should we do to re-engage the public?
 One of the recent events that highlighted this was the report by a research group in China of editing human embryos using CRISPR/Cas9 (Protein Cell. 2015 May;6(5):363-72.). Though the paper clearly mentioned that these double fertilized embryos were naturally non-viable and the experiment showed many off target effects and more detail studies were required, the general public got the impression from the mainstream press that we were in the era of designer babies. As scientists held nuanced debates in many scientific forums, none of these were properly conveyed to the public, and the long-term benefits and application of such techniques were not highlighted. Sadly, even the ethics debate was not properly conducted, leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions and misinformation creating a false image of crazy scientists creating a Frankenstein.

Two initiatives in 20th century America perfectly highlight the potential benefits of engaging the public in the scientific journey. The first is the formation of The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was made popular by Eddie Cantor’s radio appeal to the people to send dime(s) for the cause of polio research, thus renaming the organization –The March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation. This popular appeal galvanized the general public by making them partners in the research progress.
The second was the joint effort by Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker to raise awareness about cancer among the people and highlight the need for a more concerted effort to find a cure doing better research and eventually leading to the National Cancer Act, 1971, the positive effect of which is felt even today by cancer researchers as well as by patients and families. This monumental effort made the general public aware of the various nuances of research on cancer and the difficulties associated with them, thus making science a little less mysterious and the scientists a bit more human (for a more detailed account read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies”).

Scientists will benefit in the long run from this inclusiveness. As we engage the public and make them aware of our work, it will lead to a change of perception and more popular support for the practice of science. This, in turn, will lead to policy- and decision-makers allocating more resources and allowing for better research to be conducted that will justify the investment.

The practice of science has always fascinated and terrified lay people in equal measures. To them, it is a world full of jargon and complicated data that have no real-life application. It takes time to explain that if you look beyond the jargon most things we do eventually impact people’s daily life. This is where we as a community have to become better. We have to learn to deconstruct our science and get to the real crux of what we do and this will have far-reaching consequences in how people view science and also their support for various scientific endeavors. We scientist are an integral part of the larger society we live in and the science we do is intertwined with it. It is high time we take this message to a larger audience, listen to them, and learn to truly respect and debate alternative points of view.

Sumantra Chatterjee is a postdoc at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, where his research focus is on understanding networks implicated in complex human disorders. 

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