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Self-Promoting Scientists: Building Trust with the Public

Posted on May 31st, 2017 by in Pharma R&D



At Sequencing the Genome: Examining Modern Medicine, an event recently held in New York City and sponsored by The Atlantic, a series of panelists spoke on many aspects of genomics ranging from its progress in treating disease to its potential for stopping epidemics, covering the burgeoning field’s limitations and challenges along the way. But, interestingly, a common theme that kept recurring among the event’s various speakers was the need for the scientific community to do a better job of promoting itself to the outside world.

Ripley Ballou, Vice President of GSK Vaccines, spoke about the pride his employees feel in the work they’re doing and how that resonates internally, but that it is unfortunately not always communicated outwardly. His co-panelist, Mark Feinberg, President and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, noted that the “bad stories” are the ones that most often get told by the media. While the media’s tendency to focus on negative rather than positive news applies almost universally, it is particularly unfortunate in the area of scientific research. Vaccines, for example, have surely saved millions of lives globally, but it is perhaps easier to report on a vaccine controversy than to write a story about all the diseases that have been successfully prevented.

Arthur Caplan, Professor of Bioethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that it is the scientists who really must step up more and advocate for their own endeavors. Caplan even suggested that scientists ought to be trained to more effectively express themselves to a broader audience: “It’s a skill set. We ought to empower people,” he said. Co-panelist Paul Appelbaum, Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine and Law at Columbia University, noted that someone at his institution is trying to do outreach by making and distributing short videos online, while The Atlantic’s James Hamblin said that maintaining a social media presence and making yourself available for interviews are good ways of connecting with the public at large.

Ting Wu, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that some scientists display a somewhat “haughty” attitude, which may reflect a feeling that they are above explaining themselves to people and therefore cause a sense of distrust. She believes that researchers must make a point of reaching out, particularly to underserved populations that are often the least informed about scientific and medical advancements that could affect them. When people better understand the value that science offers them and their community, they are more likely to support needed funding for research.

The topic of Hollywood’s role in public perception also came up, and Caplan expressed a worry that the entertainment industry may too often portray science as being exploitative, such as in the recent HBO movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” But Wu, who has worked as a consultant for the television drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” was more optimistic about the potential for film and TV to inform millions of people (who may not otherwise be interested) in scientific issues.

Those who are suspicious that pharma companies are motivated primarily by profit would have been impressed hearing Aris Baras, VP of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Head of Regeneron Genetics Center, talk about his company’s work. Baras explained that they don’t spend time thinking about the market, instead focusing on the best science and trusting that this science-first mentality will lead them to success. The public needs to hear more of these voices from the lab.

Focusing on the state of innovation and research at the very beginning of the “Sequencing the Genome” event, Claire Pomeroy, President and CEO of the Lasker Foundation, embodied a perfect example of someone who seems born to proselytize for science. She spoke about science in humane terms, emphasizing the importance of education, patient involvement and the need to be led by core values. She talked about how most scientists want to do good for people, and that science and medical research have the answers to many of society’s vulnerabilities. “They’re all about hope,” she insisted.

Now scientists just need to get that message out to the people.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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