Science and SocietyPeer-Reviewed Research

Just The Facts

Public access to scientific research
  • Scientists often avoid describing their work directly to the public.
  • Researchers have a responsibility to get their message to the community in clear, accessible language.
  • Healthy societies and good science have a symbiotic relationship.

Scientists, as a tribe, avoid describing their work to the public. Blurting impressions on Snapchat or summing up an experiment in 140 characters doesn’t gain the respect of their peers. On the other hand, spending an hour explaining a concept to a reporter often means hearing one’s words the next day on TV –  dumbed down, reduced to a phrase or plain wrong.

Meanwhile, science itself is incredibly competitive. Why should scientists scribble op-eds when they have grant proposals to write?

Because it’s their duty, argues David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the cognitive sciences faculty at Rice University. Whether they are physicists, biologists or economists, Eagleman says, scientists need to share their knowledge in a way the public can understand. In a 2013 journal article, he presented a list of reasons, each in some way reinforcing one principle: Good science and healthy societies both need each other.

Most obviously, disseminating scientific ideas is good business. “Thank your funders,” Eagleman tells scientists. While past research shows that governments earn healthy returns when they invest in science, taxpayers need to know what their dollars are doing. It’s not enough for PubMed to offer federally-funded research papers online; scientific research is a product, and it needs to be presented in a way that reaches voters in their everyday lives. “Would you invest billions,” Eagleman asks, “in an industry that doesn’t share its accomplishments, questions and goals?”

When scientists do share their findings, citizens can be their advocates. Think of the citizens who defended vaccines during decades of allegations that vaccines were linked to autism. Parents who knew medical history and carefully followed current research continued to vaccinate their children until the anti-vaccine article that launched the scare was unveiled as a fraud.

Mainstreaming science also keeps the public realistic. It’s no crime to settle in with a glass of Malbec and watch a CSI where impossible biological analyses solve the case in 50 minutes. It’s only a problem when viewers don’t realize that in real life, that couldn’t happen. But such knowledge is only possible if good science is as accessible as good TV. So a researcher who takes the trouble to talk to a journalist, and complains if the end product is wrong, is helping to build a well-informed public.

Beyond supplying data, researchers also prompt critical thinking – too often treated as an odd habit unneeded outside the academy. Without decision-making skills grounded in science, however, police hire handwriting experts to try to spot sex offenders and the FBI hires mentalists to remotely see the contents of enemy bunkers. Beyond wasting taxpayer money, the absence of critical thinking in these decisions gives charlatans unearned power over the public’s lives.

In fact, the standards for making public policy are less rigorous than those for mixing the average petri dish. If more scientists had spoken up, for instance, perhaps the county commission in Pinellas, Florida wouldn't have banned fluoride from the water supply. Instead, the commission based its vote on decidedly unscientific beliefs, such as the notion that fluoridation was an eugenics scheme or a plan to dope the community into submission.

Eagleman argues that social policy overall should be based on the scientific method. “Instead of letting legislation ride on the winds of intuition,” he writes, “let’s make our legislation evidence-based.” This doesn’t mean it will always be perfect: scientific findings themselves often are flawed. What the scientific method would do is refine what we feel intuitively – and offer a framework for adapting quickly to facts as they arise.

In the meantime, Eagleman argues, it’s the responsibility of scientists to share what they know. The urgency has become greater in the past decade, as traditional news outlets lose funding for their own watchdog work. Online fact-checking groups such as pick up some of the slack, correcting false assertions by media and political candidates. But they can’t take the place of scientists. In addition to giving voters nuanced information about how the world works, scientists model how to be humble, critical and open in the face of new knowledge.

That’s easier said than done, as presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson observed back in 1956. “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” a supporter shouted to him at a rally. “That’s not enough, Madam,” Stevenson called back. “We need a majority.”

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the cognitive sciences faculty at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Eagleman, D.M., (2013). Why Public Dissemination of Science Matters: A Manifesto. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(30),  12147-12149.