Scientist’s dilemma: find a public voice on big issues or stay silent?

Scientist's Dilemma

There is a scientist’s dilemma: should you speak out on important, sometimes controversial issues in science, where you not only can potentially have positive impact, but also risk being attacked for it?

Or do you remain silent?Scientist's Dilemma

I’ve now been blogging for more than 7 years. I’ve battled the often exploitive for-profit stem cell clinics for years. But it goes beyond that. I’ve also worked against hype including sometimes that in the academic arena. For instance, in early 2015 I posted a probing review online of the two STAP papers the same day they were published, and from there quickly raised serious questions about them in the public domain before most people realized anything was up. In addition, I’ve been a vocal proponent of more dialogue and soberness on the use of CRISPR in the germline in humans, which is often hyped.

In these and other ways, I’ve hopefully had positive impact for patients and on policy on important fronts. However, it hasn’t always been fun or felt productive on the whole. I’ve also made mistakes. Over the years I’ve come to realize that if you as a scientist decide to voice a controversial opinion, you should go into it with balanced expectations. It can be rough out there.

If you are a researcher who wants to make impact on policy and major issues, go into it with your eyes open and some thick skin. Expect pushback and even prepare yourself for some possible attacks on you on the web. You just never know. Another thing I’ve learned over the years as well is that if you decide to talk publicly you need to try to avoid “overshooting” by going to extremes. Instead, try to carry with you respect for other voices and opinions. That’s in part what I encourage guest posts on this blog and often interview those here who disagree with me. It’s not always easy to find the sweet spot if you regularly have a public voice on tough issues, something to consider if you enter the fray.

At the same time it is reasonable to decide not enter the fray. I can totally respect that decision, but it too has risks. You are in effect silencing yourself on important issues and the community will not benefit from your viewpoints. Still, many factors come into play and there are different risks depending on one’s specific field within science and career stage. Caution is probably wise in certain circumstances.

I’m curious for you readers: is there an instance that you can share here (anonymous is fine) where you publicly said something about science and regretted it, and/or conversely where you stayed silent and regretted it later?

Also, take our above poll on the scientist’s dilemma: how outspoken scientists should be in your view.

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