Friday, February 17, 2012

Science At The Crossroads



# 6151



Being born of the space age, and having cut my teeth on the science writings of Willy Ley and Isaac Asimov, I am about as `pro-science’ as one can get.  No one need convince me of the validity of evolution, or the benefits of vaccines, or that – on the whole – science has done much to better mankind.


Yet I’m sorry to say that the public’s perception of science, and scientists, has seen better days.


According to a recent UK poll (Public Attitudes To Science, May 2011), while the majority of respondents (79%) believe science has, on the whole, made our lives easier .  . . .  astonishingly, just 54% believe that the benefits of science are greater than any harmful effect.


One only has to look at the deep divisions over climate change, evolution, vaccine safety, nuclear power, and genetically modified food crops to realize just how wide this rift between the public, and scientists, has become.


Last year in a BBC Horizon special Science Under Attack, Nobel Prize winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse explored some of the reasons why science, and scientists, are increasingly coming under attack.


While he cites many factors (including irresponsible bloggers, and tabloid journalism), he also faults scientists for their failure to communicate with the public.


A brief quote from near the end of the program:


“Scientists have forgotten that we don’t operate in an isolated bubble. We cannot take the public for granted. We have to talk to them, we have to communicate the issues. We have to earn their trust, if science really is to benefit society.”


While it would be nice to chalk up the public’s mistrust of science to a simple lack of communication, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Science’s record is hardly without blemish.


Call it the law of unintended consequences. Some ideas that seemed perfectly reasonable and rational at the time turned out to be foolish or even dangerous later.


A few scientific innovations that have come back to haunt us include:


  • putting lead in paint & gasoline
  • Using asbestos in ceiling tiles, insulation, and cigarette filters 
  • Painting clock dials with radium paint
  • Using growth enhancing antibiotics for livestock


We are smarter now, of course. And while it is easy to assure that we know better than to repeat the mistakes of the past, scientists are still human, and missteps will doubtless continue to occur.


But it isn’t just honest mistakes in science that has done damage.  Research has its dark side as well.


In a 2010 article appearing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, researcher R. Grant Sheen found hundreds of examples of research paper retractions over the past decade due to what he deemed to be `deliberate fraud’.


Add in the parade of FDA approved drugs that we’ve seen withdrawn for safety reasons after years of use, and allegations of biased industry funded clinical trials (see RCTs: All That’s Gold Standard Doesn’t Glitter), and one begins to understand why public confidence in science has flagged.


And while it pains me, It is hard to deny that some of this tarnish hasn’t been at least partially earned.


In recent months the debate over H5N1 research appears to have further polarized the public and the scientific community. 


Which may help explain why views, like the ones expressed in a recent New York Times Editorial (An Engineered Doomsday) - that called for a halt to this sort of work, and the destruction of the virus – seem to resonate with a substantial segment of the public. 


Regardless of what is ultimately decided regarding the publication of the Fouchier and Kawaoka H5N1 papers, this new era of bioengineering and life sciences brings with it a host of thorny issues that must be addressed if the public is to regain confidence in science.


Among them:

  • How are we to handle this brave new world of life sciences, where new viruses and other life forms can be created in the laboratory?
  • Who decides what is appropriate, or safe research?
  • Who decides what should be published, and who should have access to redacted information?
  • What laboratory protocols and protections are necessary for working the the H5N1 virus?


Daunting questions all, and likely to spur vigorous (even heated) academic debate. 


We find ourselves at at turning point in science, and potentially, in the perception of science as well.


How openly, honestly, and civilly this debate is conducted, and most importantly - how well these complex issues and subsequent decisions are conveyed to the public - will doubtless influence how the public will perceive the scientific community going forward.


There is much ground to be either gained or lost in the public’s mind, depending on how well this is handled. And a lot more at stake than the fate of a couple of research papers, or even a particular line of research.

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