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Do scientists want to conduct their research without oversight and public engagement?

February 1, 2012 - 13:41 -- Mark Benedict

The openness of scientists involved in the creation of genetic control methods against mosquitoes has been questioned in popular press and activist outlets. Therefore the results of a recent survey on this subject deserve attention. Do scientists want to conduct their research without oversight and public engagement?

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” is an aphorism that has much merit. When activities are suspect, shining light on what was obscured clarifies the details of a situation and may absolve - or damn - the actors. Perniciously, the interpretation of the fruits of illumination is often muddied to protect the guilty or impugn the innocent. Such sunset obfuscation serves the cynical purpose of supplying cover for both those who demanded sunshine (if nothing was found) and those who got burned (but wished to maintain their reputation).

Transparency (sunshine) is an essential component of science, particularly when the research is publicly funded and will eventually have an application in medicine or the environment. Therefore, a recent publication that reported the results of a survey of scientists who had at least some tangential connection to genetic control of mosquitoes regarding their attitudes about sunshine on their research caught my eye: I found the results encouraging though reading only the abstract might lead one to feel otherwise.

The survey polled scientists who had some relationship to genetic control of mosquitoes by email and asked them to participate in a survey of attitudes. Of 748 email addresses polled, 39% responded, drawn mostly from Africa, Europe and North America (in order of response numbers). Most of the survey questions were demographic (for example, “Are you national from a malarious country?”), some were judgments (“Do you consider most of your research fundamental or applied?”), and others looked at attitudes of these scientists toward transparency and the related issue, community engagement. The latter are the important issues here.

With regard to the question “Would you welcome interactions with a non-scientific public on your research?” 90% responded, “Yes.” While the nature of the interactions was not described, this is an encouraging demonstration that there is indeed an open attitude about sharing research activities.

A poorly worded question was unfortunately misinterpreted by those analyzing the responses: “Would you agree/ appreciate if your research was submitted to the evaluation and a prior agreement by a group of non-specialists informed by a jargon-free version of your research project?” The positive response rate (58%) was an outcome which one might be wildly enthusiastic about given the ambiguity of the question.

I can think of several ways of interpreting the query: “Would you agree to having your research submitted for prior agreement by a group of non-specialists?” which could mean that it would not proceed if non-specialists did not agree with the project. On the other hand, it might mean, “Would you appreciate if your research was evaluated by non-specialists?” These are two very different questions, but both were entangled. The fall in the positive responses may say more about the question than the responses. A bit much was made of the fact that whether one was working in a malarious country had a significant (P = 0.07) effect on the response.

Another area of questions asked “how” the public should be involved but the requested responses were categorized as “when.” This is a multifaceted question that is difficult to get consensus on unless a description of the nature of involvement and the specific project is given. Nonetheless, the responses indicated wide acceptance: 97 % agreed that there should be public involvement. As polls go, that’s astounding consensus.

Overall, the attitudes were encouraging.

Scientists should make efforts to explain what they are doing and engage with the public. The results of this survey, in so far as it goes, demonstrate wide agreement among scientists that there should be plenty of sunshine for genetic control programs. It’s our responsibility to make sure that it happens.