When Research and Current Events Intersect: What is a Scientist’s Responsibility to Disseminate Information?
Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Associate Editor
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:
- 1) Is your field directly or indirectly intersecting the societal event? If you answered ‘no’, no need to continue – you might be concerned for personal reasons, which is completely fine, but note that your contribution is not a professional obligation.
For example, let’s consider the recent COVID-19 outbreak. This event directly coincides with several fields, such as public health, public policy, clinical medicine, and immunology. Therefore, if your research focuses on any of these aspects, you likely have beneficial knowledge on the topic, even if it is not your individual research focus. However, this may not be straightforward. COVID-19 also indirectly interacts with fields such as economics and microbiology, and depending on your individual research interests, you may have relevant information to share as well. The question is, should you? The answer depends on your level of expertise.
- 2) Do you have an education directly relating to the societal event? Is your current profession providing you with additional experience beyond your education? While expertise and education are well-correlated, education is not the only factor. For example, do you work in one of the fields impacted (such as public health or clinical trials of vaccinations in the case of COVID-19, or hydrology or meteorology in the case of melting glaciers)? This applies even if you are not a researcher – academics, professors, and policymakers should be aware of the current literature, giving you a strong background in relevant information that may make it easier to disseminate complicated information to the public.
- 3) Do you have the time and energy to contribute to this societal event? This is a more complicated question; most people feel some personal obligation to contribute when a large event impacts their community and country as drastically as COVID-19 has. However, it is important to stop, take a moment, and reflect on how much energy you can invest. There is nothing wrong if you feel you cannot volunteer your time to extra hours in the laboratory, especially if that time is at the expense of other personal or professional obligations. Being as accurate and timely as possible are important, so if that means you contribute it smaller ways, such as supporting someone else’s work, your efforts will be well-received.
- 4) What audience do you expect to reach? It is tempting to create a post on your social media platform of choice, but that may not always be the most effective way of reaching your target audience. For example, individuals in your immediate circle might share your thoughts, but you have no way of controlling what thoughts of their own they might add, or who they might contact. If you are currently in a scientific community, will you be reaching people who already have this information? Thus, it is important to contemplate the impact you might have before you hit the ‘publish’ button – information is important, but only when it is accurate and well-considered. It is also important to remember that the public can suffer from ‘information overload’. Therefore, when possible, consider collaborating with your colleagues in the same or similar fields to produce one strong, impactful message instead of several small ones that might get missed or ignored because the information appears similar on the surface.
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.