What should the role of a scientist be? Insights from the Polish citizens.

Ľutujeme, táto stránka je dostupná len v English.

Pseudoscience takes its toll and as a result people themselves pose threats to health and the environment worldwide. I read posts on FB and slalom around the news that I find true or false. I observe in practice the simple truth that misinformation “sticks” even when corrected. But what should my role as a scientist be in this context? As a researcher, I was very interested to learn from citizens how they define the role of a scientist and what are the societal expectations the scientists should meet nowadays, in the age of misinformation.

The participants of public consultations provided me with several insights. First of all, they emphasized the mission that should guide the work of scientists – seek truth and develop science with the highest ethical standards. They should verify what is true and untrue rationally and objectively and make sure their names as scientists are not “tainted” by some unethical behaviour. Due to many bad practice examples of biased research work, the citizens became very sensitive to the issue of who finances the research work. Being transparent about it is a must to be viewed as credible:

“The ideal scientist whom you trust is an impartial person whose only goal is to promote science in itself.”

 “Scientists should comment when something is untrue.”

“I think scientists should point to the untrue statements but do it rationally because alternative medicine has its advantages and disadvantages. Everything is for people but using alternative medicine must be rational.”

But, what is important, the scientists should not wait until asked for an opinion, but rather take an active stance and react immediately to any breach in the knowledge status quo. They should initiate discussions proactively and thus advance the knowledge:

“Reaction should follow when the current knowledge is questioned. This is the moment when discussions should be started. Einstein failed physics, right? It seemed at that time that he was wrong, but he proved he was right and it evoked discussion. The status of knowledge changed.”

The scientific findings need better dissemination. There is plenty of great research, but very little is heard about it. Does the problem lay with the scientists’ mode of operations? The media? Or maybe the lack of sufficient collaboration between media and scientists? Should there be more attention, effort, support, and structure to facilitate the process of popularizing science?

“Scientists can run research. They can verify the findings. They can deny, they can confirm. They need to publish. This is what scientists can do. I suspect that there are plenty of relevant research findings, but they are not popularized. This is the problem with the media. It is increasingly difficult to verify information.”

“I think it is hard for scientists to get through with their voice because in terms of numbers there are few of them when compared to the population of the society. And scientists must in my opinion use media more often. Pass the results of their findings to the media, their opinions about medical issues, using media, professional journalists, there should be some kind of symbiosis in this relationship”.

The advocated collaboration and stronger relationship between journalists and scientists form a much-needed practice that should be developed and promoted. However, as a scientist, I should not forget what I can do individually or as part of the institutional dissemination activities. The citizens provided some inspirational examples of how scientists can disseminate the findings in a way that attracts a wider audience:

“There is such a channel produced by the Copernicus Center [Centrum Nauki Kopernik] and there (..) is a scientist there, every week or so, he discusses the next issue of Nature. Well, it’s fantastic, it’s fantastic to listen to it (…).”

“Cartoons, comics, yes … Cartoons for children should contain scientific information.”

“I think that such information spreads well at large festivals of various types, for example at Woodstock. Greenpeace, look, they were so active at Woodstock, I learned there about the problems with the Baltic Sea just at Woodstock, yes. There were half a million people there, and everyone was hooked somewhere, they just got leaflets, invitations to meetings with specialists in the fields of biology, meteorology, chemistry, and so on.”

 “I just wanted to add that two days ago I think the latest information film was just released, propagated by Greta Thunberg and I think it is a masterpiece of short propaganda films. In this video, she talks to a scientist who tells about what is happening and, in the end, she says what you can do. Three things: either, first of all, share information, this video, secondly – make your friends aware, thirdly – if you can, apply it yourself. And these three things, I think that these types of videos are…, I found it perfect.”

It seems that nowadays scientists have their momentum because the age of misinformation can appreciate their value more than ever before. They are expected to become active participants of everyday debates and considerations, frequent guest speakers of the talk shows and morning TV programmes reaching with their findings millions of laymen, propagating the truth. To serve public good they should be more involved in advising politicians, media, clerks. One of the participants advocated even giving the oversight role to scientists:

“What scientists can do? Usually, they can issue a statement. But if they could have more influence, then they could force the solutions that there is no homeopathy in the pharmacies or that for example, supplements have some texts on the packaging that the effect has not been scientifically proven. It would be good if they had bigger oversight over the clerks, politicians. And the media should be controlled by scientists. Some scientists specialize in how to communicate information. Facts are not enough, emotions need to be involved.”

The opinion that the media or politicians should be overseen or controlled by scientists sounds too far-fetched for me. But I agree that emotions need to be more involved in communicating science. I believe the curiosity, creativity, or a desire to change the world of the individual scientists can provide this emotional fuel that needs to accompany the facts to win the interest, attention, and followers. The engaged scientists who deeply care about what they do and what is the impact of their work are uniquely positioned to fulfill this niche. With their personal brands and the affiliation of the institutions that they work for they can become strong and trusted partners whom the society might view as the most reliable and credible source of information.

Another reflection that stems from the analysis of what the citizens shared is that the dissemination and impact are these parts of the research process which need more focused attention and effort on the side of scientists and the institutions they work for. Communicating the findings requires increased determination, engagement, and creativity so that the truth can be popularized to various audiences effectively. Dissemination of scientific findings requires also the critical mass to form a meaningful counterbalance to widespread misinformation. It seems that the quality of the message needs to be accompanied by a large number of coverages, followers, views, posts, and tweets to be truly impactful.

I want to thank all the 100 participants of the Polish public consultations that so willingly shared their opinions. Gaining all these insights from the citizens makes me reflect that my role as a scientist needs to evolve. And it needs to evolve quickly. I feel this sense of urgency that should accompany the process of change because science keeps losing battles to pseudoscience. My sense of agency tells me also that I need to exceed with several skills to be better at disseminating my findings, i.e.: engaging effectively the stakeholders of my research, driving impact online, or learning how to develop a truly meaningful policy brief. Another reflection that builds up is related to the area of my scientific studies that revolve around building the quality culture at higher education institutions. It has just gained another dimension: enabling universities to develop a strong impact on culture.

by Małgorzata Dzimińska