It is up to each of us to help all the Sarah Palins of this world, and all the Joe the Taxpayers behind them, understand and appreciate the value of all kinds of research, both within and beyond our borders
As the Editor of a journal focused on the use of model organisms to advance human health and a former fruit fly researcher, I took it a little personally when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin denounced fruit fly research: “…sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” (Palin, 24 October 2008). I’d be preaching to the converted if I explained what is so wrong-minded about that attitude (but others have done so quite eloquently; see, for example, Hitchens, 2008; Palmer and Pringle, 2008), and I’d be naïve if I thought that it was an appreciation for the value of biomedical research in model organisms that drove record numbers to the polls on November 4th to elect Barack Obama as the 44th president of the USA, an office he will assume later this month. It wasn’t even what drove me to the polls – I had already voted by the time Palin made her declaration.
Palin’s flippant attack on fruit fly research is not the first example of a politician deriding specific kinds of research. For example, a recent PLoS Medicine article (Kempner, 2008) describes a 2003 ‘public controversy’ in which members of congress questioned a number of NIH grants, many of which focused on certain aspects of sexual behavior, for their ‘medical benefit’. This led to a proposed amendment to the 2004 NIH appropriations bill, and then to a joint hearing of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee and the US Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. No one lost NIH funding as a result of these deliberations, but according to Kempner, the controversy itself led to self-censorship: to protect themselves from future accusations, many of the scientists involved either changed their research focus, where they do it, or how they describe it to others.
The 2003 controversy reminds us that publicly funded research is subject to governmental oversight, and that although we may be quick to dismiss the concerns of these politicians as ‘narrow’, ‘conservative’ or even ‘unappreciative of the value of research’, it is in the interest of ourselves and future generations to recognize the challenges and opportunities before us. We must learn to speak in a language that the public understands and help them appreciate the value of biomedical research.
Engaging the public is challenging. As scientists, we are trained to recognize the limitations that might undermine our own conclusions, and it often feels very uncomfortable to present a simplified message. Furthermore, many nonscientists seem uneasy when the language and concepts get too ‘scientific’ and complicated, and seem to prefer ending the conversation to asking for clarification. Movement needs to come from both directions to bridge these gaps. In the long run, we desperately need a more educated and literate public. However, because many factions of our society benefit from the ignorance of our populace, there will be both individual and systematic resistance to these attempts. I remain optimistic, in part because of the expectation the internet has created for available, reliable information.
Medical information is among the most highly sought after information on the web (second only to the weather, I am told) and I have been part of the movement to make that information publicly available. One of the criticisms of the public access movement is that the public can’t possibly appreciate complicated research questions; therefore, no benefit is gained by making research articles freely available. Interestingly, this assumption seems shared by researchers and the public alike. When I interviewed potential PLoS employees, I was struck that applicants for nonscientific positions had rarely tried to read a scientific paper, even if they had studied every other part of the PLoS website. I considered creating two portals to the PLoS journals – one for scientists and one for nonscientists – both leading to the same information.
What can we do? Andrew Murray, in an essay published in Current Biology (Murray, 1995), urged scientists to learn how to describe their research to their mothers and to the people sitting next to them on an airplane. He writes, “Explaining what science is and why we do it is the only way to reduce the credibility gap between scientists and non-scientists… The only way out is to explain to the public what we’re doing now, tell them how much we still don’t understand, and give our best guess about where today’s knowledge will lead. By fulfilling these obligations, we can show Joe and Josephine the beauty that captivates us. More importantly, we can help them make informed decisions about the social and political questions that science and its applications create.”
Although I love the image of being seated next to Sarah Palin on my next flight to Alaska and having the opportunity to incite her enthusiasm for research using model organisms, we need more than the chance opportunities presented by plane travel and family dinners to help both our legislators and the public understand and appreciate science. As a community, we need to learn from high-caliber science journalists – in the USA, people like Nicholas Wade and his colleagues at the New York Times or Joe Palka and Ira Flatow of National Public Radio – who have spent their careers sharing their enthusiasm for science with the general public. I encourage scientific journal editors to strive to make science more accessible, perhaps by adding ‘lay summaries’ (such as the translational impact box in DMM, and the editor’s or author’s summaries and synopses in the PLoS journals) to help a broader audience understand the research that they publish. In addition, through the establishment of science education partnerships that bring researchers into public schools, training programs for teachers, public lectures and science cafés, we can all begin to share what we know in a language that nonscientists understand. The website hosted by the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS, www.copusproject.org) links to a number of these projects. With the support of the public policy committees of our scientific societies, more and more of us are visiting our representatives, explaining what we do and what matters to us. I urge you to get involved; just a few of the relevant websites are provided at the end of this editorial.
It relieves me that someone who appreciates the value of the research published in DMM is about to be sworn in as President of the USA. But the responsibility is more ours than his to ensure a public understanding of science. It is up to each of us to help all the Sarah Palins of this world, and all the Joe the Taxpayers behind them, understand and appreciate the value of all kinds of research, both within and beyond our borders. I kid you not.
Science Education Partnership Awards: www.ncrr.nih.gov/science_education_partnership_awards/
The Coalition for Life Sciences: www.coalitionforlifesciences.org
Society for Science & the Public: www.societyforscience.org
Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS): www.copusproject.org