How we communicate our research is important in maintaining public trust in science
By Eileen Parkes
“Exciting new line of attack for aggressive breast cancer”
I read that headline recently. “Fantastic” I thought, quickly followed by, “How have I missed this?”. My disappointment as I read the article (the new treatment had only been shown to work in cells in the lab, not in humans) turned to anger as I thought what someone with breast cancer might think whilst reading this. Someone who had coped with bad news and difficult treatments, hoping for a cure only to be disappointed again and again by overblown headlines.
As scientists, we want our work to make an impact; to be a positive force in the world around us. Many of us chose to work in research in the hope of making the world a better place and advancing the sum of human knowledge — from finding our place in the universe, to understanding the intricacies of our DNA. We care about the planet, people and patients. That passion drives us, but there is a fine line between our understandable desire to promote our research and the slippery slope of hype.
I once tried to sell my second hand car – I did a terrible job. I declared every flaw: dodgy door handle, substandard paint job, temperamental sound system. Unsought, the car eventually found its way to auction.
Sometimes when I’m communicating research to the media, it can feel a bit like selling that car again. Tempted to ignore the caveats and gloss over the limitations, we might be encouraged to overstate the impact, or the potential impact, of our work. We might find ourselves making statements on our “ground breaking” or “game changing” research that in reality, like most research, is more like finding another small piece of an enormous jigsaw than producing a finished masterpiece.
It’s not just the media space where we find the temptation to exaggerate and claim greater significance than is truly warranted. Funders expect impact statements on our grant applications. We want the money so we play along, suggesting potential impacts that may be years down the line and a long way from making a significant difference. Funders want to demonstrate the impact of the research they fund, which the public have paid for, and will encourage us to promote our work publicly. In this context, it can be difficult to explain the gap between an important discovery about cell division, and the impact this may have on treating an illness one day — but not yet.
We want to improve lives or make significant discoveries, and we want our research to infect others with the same excitement we have — in communicating with the public we should be able to communicate our excitement and hope without overselling our results.
Published papers may include a “significance” paragraph. This is where we find phrases like “paradigm shifting” and “considerable conceptual advances” only to read a paper that promises more than it delivers. The paper may still be great research, but the overstatement of the findings in this initial paragraph can only disappoint and an otherwise interesting work may leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Put yourself in the shoes of someone clinging to hope. An overhyped headline may lead them to invest their hope into a transformative treatment that, in reality, doesn’t exist. Building a career (or a fortune) on hype without substance leads only to disappointment. Hyped and oversold research is dangerous and damaging to science and scientists’ public reputation.
In today’s post-truth world science faces heavy scrutiny, and public trust in science should be valued. Reciprocating that confidence by communicating the nuances of research, as well as being open and honest about our findings, may prove to be the best way to maintain public trust in scientific research.
Eileen Parkes is a clinical post-doctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, exploring the immune response to DNA damage. A terrible used-car salesman, outside the lab she loves spending time with family and using social media to talk science. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.