14 February 2011

Promises versus trust

If you’re reading this, chances are you have more than a passing interest in science. You’re probably convinced that science is, on the whole, a good thing.

Two entries on the web on Friday were both about convincing people of the worth of basic science.

Holly Bik wrote a post on the Scientific American Guest blog:

Marine sponges are practically a gold mine. The mere mention of this phylum elicits Pavlovian salivation from pharmaceutical companies—in addition to malaria, sponge chemicals are leading the fight against tumors, cancer, bacteria, inflammation, and arthritis. Even sponge skeletons have been tested as ‘bioscaffolds’ to help heal bone and cartilage injuries.

Holly and I had a conversation on Twitter about this. I worry that in trying to advocate for basic research, we make two mistakes:

  1. We define “benefits” very narrowly, usually medicine.
  2. We oversell those potential benefits.

Holly replied:

Unfortunately a lot of people only relate ‘benefits’ to human medicine. I was playing the game to get the msg across & open eyes.

It was reminiscent of this cartoon:

Hannah Walters chipped in that she thought “because it’s awesome” is an honest way to talk about research, but it’s hard to put that into a sound bite.

Coincidentally, Randy Olson wrote an editorial on this the same day:

But research scientists are in a different situation. And yet, they too need the public’s support. So how can they achieve this?

The answer is trust. People support institutions they trust. Scientists have a long record of success. They have brought us technology, cured diseases, and improved the standard of living for humanity. Rather than pointing to the future and asking the public to hope for their continued success, scientists can draw on their past record to win public trust.

And this is one reason why I am always telling scientists that one of our biggest advantages is our lack of pretense, our honesty, and authenticity.

(S)upport for science will come not from the promise of future solutions but from telling stories about solutions achieved in the past.

With that in mind, I reread Holly’s blog. What stories are there about solutions achieved in the past?

In parasitology we learned that Artemisinins, some of the most potent and effective anti-malaria drugs, were originally discovered in an unremarkable pan-Eurasian herb, Artemisia annua (annual wormwood).

There is a potentially great story... but it’s just one sentence! You could do a whole post – at least! – just telling that story.

Plus, one of the great things about stories and building trust is that it can take the long view. James Burke’s epic television series Connections come to mind as a model for telling great stories about science that show how one discovery can simmer for a long time before triggering some other finding.

Promises are most effective when they’re made and fulfilled in the short-term. A promise to do something in 50 years isn’t much of a promise. Science is horrible at keeping promises.

Stories can span decades and generations. That’s the time frame that science operates at, and excels at.

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