Speak Up for Research (part 2)

Speak Up for Research: Part 2
In my introduction to the ‘Speak Up for Research’ blog series I posed the question: Is science facing a civics issue? Of course, after posing the question I have to share that my opinion is that it is, in fact, facing a civics issue. I said it, now let me explain.

No one reading this is surprised by my statement that we are politically and socially divided as a nation. It is also common knowledge that the life science research community faces its own challenges with division and misunderstanding. I pointed this out in my previous blog when I cited a Pew Research study titled Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society, which showed a wide gap between the opinions of science and those held by the general public. As evidence of the level of contention, recently, animal rights activists gathered for a week long protest directed against the University of Washington’s new animal facility, which is intended to improve the quality and effectiveness of animal research.

The misinformation and mischaracterization of the work of biomedical research also has impacts on the direction of public policy and the perceived value of the life science research community’s contributions to society, to the economy, and to the health of humans and animals. At the core however, are fundamental breakdowns in the way we approach public discourse and the way we engage in dialogue about our differences, which impacts the health of our democracy.

This situation reflects this current division. Animal rights activists shout, and the research community turns to their research—occasionally looking over their shoulders to disagree. This lack of engagement and productive dialogue is anecdotal, but it is confirmed by the stories I hear, and by the results of NWABR’s own programs. We perform outreach, but struggle to bring contending views to the table to engage in dialogue. The division remains and is highlighted by contending sides and views vying for the public’s attention, and all the while rarely engaging.

The biomedical research community plays its own role in its approach to sharing its story, and time and time again I hear, ‘we have to do better’. Meanwhile, the animal activist community has put forth massive efforts to paint research in an unflattering and misleading light, and others question the profit motives of research, which adds to the growing distrust. This current paradigm leaves us in a cycle of division, character defamation, and misunderstanding—a constant tug of war. The public, caught in the messiness of information, opinion, and emotion, is uncertain as to where to turn. The public does not know who is right, who is wrong, or what to believe.

My research on civics explored normative democratic theory, which is political theory speak for the way things ought to be in the polity. I contrasted these basic theories with our current political and social paradigm, which by all accounts is highly polarized. I don’t portend to have all the answers about the way things ought to be, however I do have insights that can shed light into why I see this as an issue for science.

So why is this a civics issue? Is not democracy the right to protest, the right to voice one’s concerns, freedom of speech? From my view, what I and others see at the very core of the issue is dignity, and a collective failure to uphold it as we engage in these complex phenomena.

In my next blog I will explore civic dignity, and ask readers to share this series with their friends, contribute to the discussion, and to join us to Speak Up for Research.

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