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When Research and Current Events Intersect: What is a Scientist’s Responsibility to Disseminate Information?


Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Associate Editor

March 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has evolved into a global public health emergency. As of March 12, 2020, the number of confirmed cases has exceeded 125,000, and the number of deaths has reached over 4,600. Regardless of your research field, it is a natural response to want to contribute to your neighborhood, country, or even the global community.

The question is, what is a scientist’s level of responsibility to interact with societal events affecting their community, country, or even the entire world? This is a difficult question that professionals across fields grapple with, as these types of issues are often not included as part of formal training; a scientist is simply supposed to ‘know’ when and how to react. Of course, there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. An appropriate response will differ depending on an individual’s field, their level of expertise, other ongoing professional commitments, and their outreach network.

Below is a short check-list to help you identify your own responsibility, especially if you feel unsure about your degree of personal responsibility with regard to current events within your field of expertise. The check-list below is not limited to epidemics such as COVID-19, but can be referenced for many other types of current events, including the recent bushfire crisis in Australia, invasive Asian carp in the American Great Lakes, or unprecedented glacial loss in continental Europe.

To identify your responsibility as a scientist, first ask yourself the following questions:

Finally, we must acknowledge that we all have some level of responsibility as scientists to keep the public informed, especially when current events affecting society intersect with our research discipline. However, part of that responsibility is taking a moment to assess our own personal contributions as well as how we can make the strongest impact. Remember, even if it feels small to you, research is cumulative. Social outreach matters. What you are doing—no matter how big or how small—is essential to moving science forward.

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