7 June 2017

Research to combat fact resistance gets Mistra programme managers involved

When the heads of Mistra’s initiatives met in early May, they received international inspiration from Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes to engage in public debate. The programme managers discussed the role of researchers in a world of growing fact resistance. Another topic covered was how they could create synergies among Mistra’s programmes.

Mistra convened some 20 programme managers in early May, to enable them to meet and compare notes. Some are newcomers to their roles, while others have long experience of leading Mistra programmes.

During the two seminar days, all the programme managers held brief presentations to inform everyone of what was going on in the various programmes. The idea is that in the long run this sharing of experience can lead to synergies, which Mistra aims to achieve in its initiatives.

The conference theme, ‘Standing up for Science’, tied in with Mistra’s view that, to help bring about a better world, knowledge must reach out and gain ground in broad social strata. On a video link was the science historian and Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, who methodically argued that researchers must step up to a greater role in the public sphere.

She emphasised the need for researchers to contribute knowledge to debates. If they fail to do so, we risk drowning in erroneous beliefs and false facts, she said. She also pointed out that taking part doesn’t necessarily endanger researchers’ credibility.

Oreskes began with an example. In the first half of the 20th century, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who was both a brilliant scientist awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics (in 1922) and an active citizen who worked against the Nazis in the 1930s and spread knowledge about the risks of atomic weapons. Bohr’s political battles never tarnished his reputation as a scientist, Oreskes says.

A more recent example is the American chemist F. Sherwood Rowlands who, in the 1970s and ’80s, warned that the atmosphere’s ozone layer was thinning and that this depletion represented major risks to life on Earth. Rowlands did not hesitate to assume an activist role and use his knowledge to serve the public. In addition to developing the Rowlands–Molina hypothesis with his co-worker, he issued a warning to the world based on his research expertise: not to spread aggressive variants of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As Oreskes pointed out, the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Prize several years after that campaign is proof that it didn’t hurt his research career.

Oreskes also referred to a topical US study showing that three out of four Americans are broadly in favour of researchers taking part in public policy debates. A majority also consider that this does not undermine the researcher’s credibility.

She is a historian and had the chance to give the opening plenary lecture at the major American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Boston earlier this year. She believes that her visibility in the public arena helped to get her this prestigious assignment.

Oreskes does not, however, turn a blind eye to problems. For example, researchers should be cautious about expressing themselves outside their own area of expertise and, when they do so, always disclose the fact. In addition, higher education institutions should give researchers better support in situations where they are caught in crossfire or subjected to negative media coverage.

At Mistra’s seminar, after Naomi Oreskes, Dagens Nyheter’s (DN) Science Editor Maria Günther gave a talk. She presented a survey showing that researchers enjoy a sky-high level of public trust while her own fraternity, journalists, came second to last of all the occupations listed. Dr Maria Günther (she has a PhD in physics) thus plunged down on the trust list when she changed her job and became a science journalist.

She extended the theme of researchers as the public’s — and also the journalists’ — favourite occupational group. Journalists love researchers, she emphasised, and sometimes a little too much. ‘Something isn’t necessarily true just because a scientist says it’ is a thesis she often hammers in among her colleagues at DN.

The subsequent discussions with the programme managers were partly about the risks facing researchers if they enter the public arena. Issues that arose included the risk of being misunderstood or misquoted and the problem of gross simplifications.

One attendee cited the (fundamentally sound) press ethics rule that ‘both sides must be given a hearing’ as problematic in situations that lack two valid sides. This is true, for example, of debate on climate change and other issues where solid science is sometimes juxtaposed with unfounded statements, and these are given the same weight. Debate on genetically modified crops has also, on occasion, taken similar forms.

Other questions included the following. How is outreach achieved? How can news be inserted in ‘DN Debate’ or the newspaper’s science pages? Here, Maria Günther provided a practical tool: a checklist on which the most important item was to send an email that must be short and factual, and which should start with the most important points.

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