A new poll finds that American researchers feel a responsibility to weigh in when their scientific field intersects with politics and policy. In fact, 87 percent of scientists say engaging with the public and policy leaders is a fundamental part of their work, according to the Pew Research Center.
Their engagement may be prompted by any number of global challenges that bring scientific knowledge to the forefront of policy today: Should children be vaccinated? How can we feed the world’s 7 billion people? What can we do to ward off Ebola? How can we protect ourselves against the most damaging effects of climate change?
These and other issues provide an opportunity to weigh in – and these days, scientists are willing to speak up. "Science topics are increasingly becoming part of the public debate, and scientists clearly feel they should be in the arena," Lee Rainie, a director of research at Pew, says in a statement. This attitude dispels the myth of the aloof scientist, isolated in a lab and interested in talking only to his peers.
Only 13 percent of the scientists surveyed said they should “stay out of public policy debates.” The pollsters surveyed 3,748 Americans who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is the world’s largest general-interest scientific body and is wrapping up a five-day conference in San Jose, California, on Monday.
Zeal for scientific involvement in policymaking has dropped slightly in recent years, though. Six years ago, 97 percent of scientists felt confident that they should be involved in public debates on scientific topics, according to a 2009 poll by Pew -- which is 10 percentage points higher than today.
That was at the height of a resurgence in public interest in climate change, when some scientists were taking a vocal stand about the implications of their research. Former NASA scientist James Hansen became legendary for his role in orchestrating a political march on the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C., and was later arrested outside the White House while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. He broke the mold of what many understood a scientist to be. At that time, only 76 percent of the public thought it was a good idea for scientists to debate political issues.
Today, scientists and the public are widely split on their opinions of genetically modified foods, to take one burning issue. That’s according to another Pew survey which found that a minority of the public -- only 37 percent -- considered such foods to be safe to eat while the vast majority of scientists – 88 percent – believe them to be.
Scientists say it is important to talk with journalists about issues such as this, but they also lament the state of the media. The majority (52 percent) think journalists simplify scientific findings too much and consider this to be a “major problem.” Even more scientists – 79 percent – say journalists often fail to help their readers understand the quality of the research on which their stories are based.
Scientists remain reluctant to venture out on their own through social media, however – 77 percent say it is not important to post about their research on Facebook and Twitter and only 47 percent are currently using social media. When communicating with each other, the vast majority stick with their tried-and-true methods of reading journal articles or attending conferences within their field.