Communication: a responsibility of all scientists

Interacting with journalists can help scientists communicate their research Copyright: David Dickson

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The scientific community should commit to communication as an integral part of a researcher’s professional role.

What responsibility does a scientist have to society?

Until recently, replies to this question generally fell into two categories. Those in the ‘traditional’ camp argued that a scientist served society best by simply carrying out high-quality research, leaving others to judge how it should be used.

Set against this, a more activist camp argued that a scientist has a moral responsibility to publicly discuss the social implications of his or her research, not only promoting its benefits but also — more importantly — warning of its potential dangers.

Because those in the second camp tend to be more critical of the scientific establishment, the split can appear politically motivated, and has hindered efforts by the scientific community, in developed and developing countries alike, to adopt a consensus position on what role scientists should play.

But over the past ten years, judging from public comments made by prominent members of the scientific profession, agreement has grown that all scientists have a responsibility to ensure that the results of their research are effectively communicated to society at large. This promises to bridge the gap between the two camps.

A new consensus

This commitment is reflected in a potentially influential draft set of guidelines drawn up by the Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science, of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

The guidelines were compiled with input from participants in a meeting held last month in Bogota, Colombia, which was cosponsored by the Colombian Academy of Sciences and the National University of Colombia.

An "advisory note" from the committee is being circulated for comment among ICSU member organisations. It describes both the opportunities and threats to effectively communicating contemporary science using electronic media, and underlines the challenge of how to convey the complexities and uncertainties.

It emphasises the need for better public understanding of how science is carried out, including the importance of the peer review process. And it calls for training in communications to be made a key component of science education.

Draft guidelines on how good communication can be achieved suggest that scientists need to be realistic when estimating the importance, implications and impact of scientific research, and should avoid both alarmism and complacency when commenting on public emergencies.

Finally, the committee stresses that communication is a two-way process: scientists should not only present their findings, but also be prepared to take into consideration the public’s needs and views.

Required commitment

Embracing the responsibility to communicate scientific research does not mean that every scientist is required to become a skilled media commentator. Communication techniques come more easily to some than to others, and that difference should be recognised.

But it does need both personal and institutional commitments to ensure that communication works in the interests of both sides. As the ICSU statement puts it, "the science community has an obligation to assist the media, whilst recognising the independence of both parties".

For scientists, this can involve overcoming negative feelings about interacting with journalists — even where these are legitimately based on bad experiences. It also means taking the necessary steps to make this interaction work, such as learning to use jargon-free language.

Just as importantly, scientific institutions must make the financial and policy commitments required to enable effective communication. These can range from employing professional communications staff to facilitate the relationship between researchers and the media, to providing career incentives to encourage scientists to communicate.

The way ahead

None of this will be new to regular followers of this website. Our principal mission is to stimulate better communication between the scientific community, decisionmakers and the broader society to ensure wider and more informed uptake of scientific findings.

We seek to do this partly by exhortation and partly by setting a good example. A recent survey of scientifically qualified users of the website suggests that we are on the right track. A majority of respondents consider our coverage of the role of science and technology in development to be more insightful, accessible and balanced than other media sources that they consult regularly.

What is new in the broader context, however, is the apparent willingness of the scientific community to acknowledge that stimulating good science communication is not a voluntary add-on to, but an integral part of, the responsibilities of scientists.

Newly qualified doctors agree to abide by the Hippocratic Oath, committing to act in the best interests of their patients. It would be going too far to ask newly qualified scientists to make a similar commitment to acting in the best interests of society — this is a notoriously difficult criterion to predict, or even define. And the freedom of science, as well as the freedom of expression of scientists, needs to be respected.

But some form of commitment to communication by all researchers — such as agreement to work within guidelines based on those drafted by the ICSU committee, backed by an appropriate level of institutional support — would be an important step forward.

It would ensure that both policymakers and the wider community remain fully supportive of, and engaged with, the scientific enterprise. 2011 would be a good time to do so.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net