This Earth Day, scientists will descend on Washington, D.C. and hundreds of other cities to advocate for “evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding, and inclusive and accessible science.” While the organizers behind the March for Science promise a nonpartisan event, the timing says otherwise: the event is scheduled for the same day environmental groups will hold their biggest demonstrations of the year, and preparations came fast on the heels of the anti-Trump Women’s March on Washington.
From a public relations perspective, the March for Science brings up a number of important questions. What are the potential pitfalls of scientists engaging in the political fray? How does such a broad-based movement, bringing together every scientific discipline, coordinate a coherent message? Perhaps most importantly, will a march like this help a community usually locked in its “ivory tower” speak directly to the general public?
The answers are far from obvious. Politically speaking, the March for Science has been accused of adding fuel to growing public skepticism – and outright mistrust – of science and scientific research. This has been a problem for the March since the earliest planning stages, when it struggled with positioning itself in relation to the identity-based movements rising up in opposition to Donald Trump’s agenda. With so many marches in so many places, staying on message is not going to get any easier.
But it’s easy to understand why so many American scientists feel compelled to act. Trump’s budget blueprint has targeted funding for scientific, environmental, and medical research. The president intends to cut funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 18% and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 31%. Of course, those cuts were motivated by the idea that government scientists were letting their personal ideas get in the way of their work.
The March is likely to blur that line between scientists and activists still further. Scientific “activism” might be gratifying, but it creates serious problems when research institutions need to prove their independence and objectivity — a job that has already been made harder by an epidemic of “bad science.”
Bad science is a disturbing trend, although it stems as much from poorly designed experiments as from conscious bias. In his new book Rigor Mortis, NPR’s Richard Harris explains how inaccurate scientific work can wreak havoc. Experiments are reliable to the extent they can be reproduced—if another researcher can’t replicate the experiment and the results, those results are by definition shoddy. The reasons can be straightforward (like labs using the wrong kind of cells or testing on mice that have different characteristics) or deeply ingrained in the system, which rewards “groundbreaking” findings with grants and jobs regardless of whether or not those findings are accurate.
Unfortunately, by the time many bad experiments are uncovered, they have already done damage. In biomedical science, this can mean expensive clinical trials of drugs that can never actually work but which serve to generate headlines and give false hope to patients. Members of the US Congress have begun weighing in on the issue, delving into how taxpayer funds are contributing to poor research.
Lamar Smith, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Science Committee, has been especially vocal on this front. Last month, Smith and his colleague Darin LaHood started asking about financial ties between the National Institute of Environmental Health Institute (NIEHS) and the Ramazzini Institute in Italy. The head of NIEHS, who happens to be a Ramazzini fellow, oversaw disbursements of at least $92 million in contracts to Ramazzini and affiliates since 2009, with much of that money going out in the form of no-bid contracts which Smith’s committee now fears “may not meet adequate scientific integrity standards.”
The Ramazzini Institute isn’t alone. The House Oversight Committee recently called National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials in for questions over grants to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which has come under fire for confusing and frightening consumers by claiming substances like coffee and red meat are potentially carcinogenic. One such controversy involves the popular weedkiller glyphosate: IARC has suggested glyphosate could probably be linked to cancer, a finding that puts it at odds with every other authoritative regulatory agency that has evaluated the substance.
The two organizations, which often work together, have aggravated these doubts with a few key PR missteps. In responding to Smith and LaHood, for example, the Ramazzini Institute stressed that the controversy over its American funding stemmed from a misunderstanding: lawmakers had apparently confused the Institute with the “Collegium Ramazzini,” a separate international academy with a distinct budget and financial structure that just happens to share some fellows with the Institute. The problem with this response is that, upon closer scrutiny, it seems to misrepresent the reality of the organizational setup: not only do the two share the same address and the same personnel, but the Institute collaborates closely with the Collegium and does in fact provide it with financial support.
The partnership might well be entirely kosher, but mincing words with the inquisitive Congressmen can easily come across as obfuscation. This is a major weakness of the scientific “ivory tower”: as the scientists within the building see no problem with their organizational setup, they have a hard time understanding and addressing the concerns held by those outside their immediate circle. Unfortunately, the March for Science has the potential to produce many more such faux pas in the days ahead.
Then again, the implications of the March aren’t all bad. One component of the Washington event is supposed to be a “teach-in” on the National Mall, with researchers speaking directly to attendees about the work they do and the subjects they work on. The March itself might be a politically charged risk, but this kind of grassroots communications, branding, and outreach that brings scientists down from the “ivory tower” is exactly what they need to be doing to build public engagement and support. At a time when pseudoscientific trends like the anti-vaccine movement are on the upswing, rebuilding trust between the public and science is more vital than ever. Once Earth Day comes and goes, we’ll know the rest of the March serves that cause as well.
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