Ethics in SciComm – preparation for class on 3/5

Guest: Dr. Julie Simpson, Director, UNH Research Integrity Services.

Ethical issues relating to scientific communication include many of the topics you’ve likely examined via UNH’s RCR training modules  in areas such as misconduct, data management, conflict of interest, and authorship. An additional, overarching concern is the social responsibility of scientists with respect to the communication and application of their work.

Among the specific topics are timely and clear communication of findings in general; accurate and effective communication with non-scientists, including media; translating results into policy options; providing “policy neutral” scientific information (or playing other “apolitical” roles); making your own personal and professional interests transparent; effectively communicating uncertainty; and taking responsibility for how you use your professional expertise (or how others may use it).

These issues arise in different ways, in different situations; we’ll explore them in class via personal examples and public case studies, so here is how you should prepare:

1. Choose an example to focus on. This could be something that’s come up in your own research project, or your field. Or you could choose one from the list Julie Simpson suggested: “Climategate”; the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, and the subsequent trial of Italian seismologists; or Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine. There is a TON of information easily available about all of those cases – Julie suggests you start with a simple web search.

2. By next Tuesday evening (3/4), please post a comment/reply to this message indicating what example you chose (feel free to include links to further information), and what ethical issues related to scicomm you think it raises (as well as your questions). Posting by Tuesday p.m. will allow Julie – and the rest of us – to review everyone’s ideas beforehand, so we can discuss them together in person  in class on Wednesday.


19 thoughts on “Ethics in SciComm – preparation for class on 3/5

  1. What an interesting topic!
    Quick question….how do we include a link within a comment? I don’t see a button to push in the “comment” window…..


    1. There isn’t one, and it took me forever to figure this out! – so I included a link to the instructions in the main blog post: click on “include links” and that should get you there.


      1. I just included the addresses of the web page in my comment, and they turned into links when I posted…hope this helps!


  2. The most recent example I heard about is the Golden Rice study carried out on Chinese children. In this study, some children were fed with GMO rice to test its effect as vitamin A supplement. More information is on this link:
    This case reminds me that effective communication should be conducted at the beginning of the research instead of waiting until problems arise. For some very sensitive topics like GMO, researchers should be aware of public concerns and make necessary modifications on their research plans accordingly.
    Anyway, I think GMO always trigger heated debate, and people who are for or against it spare no effort to express their views. Consider the potential crisis, any intention to do experiment on human should be prohibited.


  3. I’m a strong believer that an important ethical issue in evolutionary biology is the perception of the public and the broader scientific community about evolution, especially in the United States. Whether it’s in the mainstream media, popular evolution literature, or the all to familiar evolution-creationism debates, how evolution is being portrayed in the public forum is rarely reflective of what scientists in the field actually believe. Specifically, you’ll be hard pressed to find any evolution books at your local book store that don’t focus solely on natural selection as an explanation for all the variation in the natural world. In fact, even in peer-reviewed journals we see an immense bias towards natural selection as the rational for observed traits.
    This is a major problem because natural selection is not all-powerful, and evolutionary biologists have known this for a very long time. Especially in large multicellular organisms like us, natural selection can explain very little without invoking an immense role of non-adaptive, stochastic forces. It is only when we incorporate all of these forces that we can begin to make sense of the earths natural variation and that evolution becomes a truly descriptive science. Nearly all evolutionary biologists know this, but the message is clearly not being portrayed to the public, largely because most of the people writing about evolution aren’t evolutionary biologists. This becomes an ethical issue because it impacts the role of evolution in our education system and public approval of medically relevant findings derived from evolutionary studies. It is part of our responsibility as evolutionary biologists to better extend our message to the general public, bearing in mind that there remains a broad distribution in receptiveness, which further enhances the ethical considerations.


    1. As far as I know, evolutionary biologists have studied more than just natural selection to explain the evolution, such as genetic drift which accounts for the stochastic forces. So not too much bias in the scientific filed, I think, and public is being told the natural selection because natural selection is simple to understand and the public are not ready to accept more complicate theories without an agreement on natural selection.


      1. Right, evolutionary biologists are taught genetic drift, but few other biologists are. Genetic drift also doesn’t account for all stochastic forces – mutation and recombination are often thought of as random, though that is certainly subject to debate. The problem is that natural selection actually explains very little on its own, especially in large organisms that are part of the public sphere. How can a sceptic be expected to agree with natural selection when it has such poor explanatory power? That is the problem.


  4. There are two examples which I think tie into each other well:
    accurate and effective communication with non-scientists, including media
    taking responsibility for how you use your professional expertise (or how others may use it).

    This is something we see in the media all too often. Either you attempt a simplified summary or a quote is taken out of context and all the sudden your statement is completely misrepresented. I would like to learn a few approaches which can make science palatable but still accurate!


    1. I worry about the out of context/misrepresentation piece, with my work. I’ve published stuff that is critical of the unthinking use of animal models…and there are a lot of people out there who would like to use it to as evidence that we shouldn’t be doing animal research at all. I try to be very, very careful about how I phrase things; I also check periodically to see where my work is being cited and how it’s spun. I don’t know any specific strategies for avoiding misinterpretation, though – especially when people have an agenda that’s at odds with yours, but which your work can be misconstrued as supporting.


  5. I see a lot of problems arising from communicating uncertainty in the fisheries management area. Fisheries biology is a very young field, and researchers are still figuring out how to conduct heir work. There are no set protocols for sampling, modeling, or translating the results into effective policy decisions. It’s hard to explain that to a fisher, or policy maker without it sounding like “they have no idea what they’re doing.” They do know what they are doing, but the fishing industry has a much larger knowledge base. Fishing has been around for millennia, and fisheries biology has only existed for a few decades.

    There is also a lot of pressure from policy makers to make definitive statements. While an economist can say that reducing catch limits to X will reduce revenue by Y, a biologist cannot say that reducing catch limits to X will increase wild stocks by Z. There is a temptation to make a claim sound more certain that it actually is. This creates the potential for even more problems if the predictions turn out to be inaccurate.

    The last major place that uncertainty is a problem is in the use of models. Through popular media, people tend to think that computers can predict anything. The joke among scientific modelers is “All models are wrong, but some of them are useful.” That is to say that a model can never fully represent the system that it is simulating, but you can still have one that has all of the important pieces. Communicating that effectively to people who don’t work with models is tricky.


    1. “While an economist can say that reducing catch limits to X will reduce revenue by Y, a biologist cannot say that reducing catch limits to X will increase wild stocks by Z.”
      Light bulb! This never occurred to me, and it is a really important observation.


  6. I took a look at the Andrew Wakefield / MMR vaccine issue and got lost in the forest. Since installing links is more difficult here in a comment, I published a post on my own blog about this issue.


  7. • Aquaculture has only existed since the 1970s, while terrestrial farming has existed for hundreds of years Aquaculture suffers from an initial bad reputation, even though it has not had nearly as long to develop as terrestrial aquaculture, and in the US is the only type of agriculture that has room for substantial growth
    • Early aquaculture had various issues with polluting the oceans, spreading sea lice, fostering disease, allowing fish to escape and depleting the stocks of forage fish, with up to seven pounds of wild fish going into each pound of farmed Atlantic salmon. Unfortunately, many of these issues still exist in the minds of consumers, even if most of them have long since been corrected by the salmon farming industry
    • In addition, groups like PETA are very against aquaculture, claiming that aquaculture is bad for the environment, and cite incorrect or dated statistics about the fish/feed required to grown different species (ie that it takes 5 pounds of ocean fish to grow 1 pound of farmed fishin reality, for more well developed aquaculture species, these ratios are close to 1:1, and many alternative feeds that do not require wild fish are being developed)
    • In 2009, PETA also launched a “Save the sea kittens” campaign to discourage people from killing and eating fish
    • Many consumers avoid farm raised fish, assuming that farmed fish has inferior taste and reduced nutritional properties as compared to wild fish
    • “It’s really high time that people have a new perspective on farmed salmon from a nutrition standpoint,” said Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute Inc., the largest seafood trade organization in the United States.
    • Aquaculture is the only type of agriculture that faces competition from wild stocks (compare this to growing livestock, crops, etc.)
    • Aquaculture development will only be successful if consumers are actually willing to buy farmed fish


    1. This was really interesting – including the range of comments on the Washington Post article to which you linked. I get it that there have been real, and significant, advances in non-wild-sourced supplements to feedstocks, control of escapees, and so on. But I am still stuck on this: the fish that most (Western) consumers want to eat, and for which there is thus enough economic incentive to support an aquaculture industry, are high-on-the-food-chain carnivores: salmonids, flounders, et al. In contrast, the mammals we like to eat are herbivores or at least lower on the food chain: cattle, pigs, sheep. It is terribly difficult to devise sustainable ways to “farm” animals at the top of their food chain, for fundamental ecological/energetic reasons. So I wonder if aquaculture should be focusing more on better ways to produce lower-on-the-food-chain species, such as tilapia. The problem, of course, is you can charge a whole lot more per pound for salmon, and that’s what drives the industry.


  8. A quick web search brought me to an interesting post titled ‘how to tell policymakers about uncertainty’

    I think this is great topic, because uncertainty is a factor in most studies, but is largely misinterpreted by the non scientific world. I wonder how much this impacts communication. In particular, I wonder how much communication is lost because of uncertainty? I can imagine there have been many scenarios where scientists have made the mistake of avoiding the discussion of uncertainty, by describing results that seem concrete, which can further be interpreted as ‘taking a side’.
    As a result of my background, I often wonder how policymakers deal with uncertainty, as they often have limited background in science. The point addressed by this article is that there are ways to explain uncertainty to decision makers. I particularly liked the sentence “We don’t know everything, but do we know enough to act?” because it outlines the balance existing between political action and the science that drives it. This particular article was addressing the policymaker’s response to uncertainty in climate change, and I wonder how uncertainty will be viewed in the future as this is an ever evolving issue.


    1. When are we “certain” of something in science? I think this is a great topic.
      What is the point at which a hypothesis becomes a theory, and does it then become irresponsible to debate the issue?
      This comes up in the autism/vaccine issue. If many/most/all studies show no link between autism and vaccines, is it irresponsible to continue to study the issue or discuss the possibility that there is a link? How do we handle minority viewpoints in science–Are their purveyors dangerous crackpots or potentially insightful colleagues?


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