BIO Convention Panel Explores Public Distrust in Science

Research!America

Trust between the general public and the scientific community must be restored to build greater public appreciation for the health and economic benefits of research, according to speakers at a panel discussion at the BIO International Convention in Boston, Massachusetts on June 6, 2018.

In a recent survey commissioned by Research!America, only 35 percent of Americans can name a place where medical or health research is conducted. Our nation’s “science enterprise is at risk if the science community does not get more recognition from the general public,” said Mary Woolley, president and CEO, Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance that encourages scientists to engage with citizens and remind them that skepticism is healthy. “To re-establish the trust, the culture of communication between the science community and the public must change,” said Woolley.

Journalist Deborah Blum said rather than talking down to the public, scientists should explain how their research impacts people’s everyday lives. Dr. James Allison, chair of the Department of Immunology at MD Anderson Cancer at the University of Texas and recipient of the Dr. Paul Janssen Award, added that awards honoring the achievements of scientists help to educate the public about scientific progress. Lucia Brown, the 2018 BioGENEius Hall of Fame Recipient, said a lack of diversity in science could also be a factor in public distrust. “When you have such a history of Tuskegee experiments, or have individuals who do not look like you at the head of the table at every different level, how can you then trust that the research that is being done is actually for you?”

Research!America board member Dr. Bill Hait, global head, Johnson & Johnson External Innovation, acknowledged that public perception of science and scientists must change.  The general public, he said, does not recognize that good health relies on scientific research. Ashanthi De Silva is a rare disease blogger and patient advocate living with SCID-ADA, a condition preventing one’s immune system from fighting off even mild infections on its own. She connects patients living with rare diseases and raises awareness for chronically ill patients and families. De Silva noted the lack of diversity in clinical research and informed the audience about National Institutes of Health’s new initiative, called “All of Us," which is encouraging diverse populations to participate in research to increase trust and transparency.

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If concerted, long-term investments in research are not made, America will lose an entire generation of young scientists.
Brenda Canine, PhD; McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana