Scientists including the news media in the process of discovery is a volatile affair, as we have all witnessed recently. My fellow bloggers on ScienceBlogs, We Beasties, discussed the role of bloggers and scientists in the process of the NASA scientists announcing their discovery of “arsenic-based life forms”.
Generally speaking, as a scientist I have always been bothered by the idea of a press release to announce a scientific discovery before I had an opportunity to carefully review the study myself. Typically, a friend or neighbor would say “Hey, did you hear about the discovery of …” and I would not be aware, because the paper had not yet been published. How incredibly frustrating! You mean the public has an opportunity to learn about the discovery before the scientists’ colleagues??
Regardless, this is the path that was taken with the announcement of the supposed arsenic-based lifeforms. In the aftermath of the firestorm in the blogosphere and elsewhere, in today’s American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco,
an interview with these scientists addressed some questions from the press and the public, despite the fact that earlier they had been insistent that the process of self-correcting science would take place exclusively within the realm of peer-reviewed science – something I understand completely.
Below is an excerpt of the interview today:
Question: Is there anything else you’d like for the public to understand about your research, or about the scientific process?
Answer: For all of us, our entire team, what this was like was unimaginable. We are a group of scientists that came together to tackle a really interesting problem. We each used our talents, from technical prowess to intellectual discussion, to objectively determine what exactly was happening in our experiments. We freely admitted in the paper and in the press that there was much, much more work to do by us and a whole host of other scientists. The press conference even included a technical expert, Dr. Steven Benner, who voiced some of the concerns we responded to above. Part of our reason for bringing this work to the community was to make the intellectual and technical connections for more collaborations to answer many of the lingering questions. We were transparent with our data and showed every datum and interesting result. Our paper’s conclusions are based on what we felt was the most parsimonious way to interpret a series of experiments where no single experiment would be able to answer the big question. “Could a microbe use arsenic in place of phosphorus to sustain its growth?” The best science opens up new questions for us as a community and sparks the interest and imagination of the general public. As communicators and representative of science, we feel that support of new ideas with data is critical but also to generate new ideas for others to think about and bring their talents to bear on.
We look forward to working with other scientists, either directly or by making the cells freely available and providing DNA samples to appropriate experts for their analyses, in an effort to provide more insight into this intriguing finding.
I look forward to it, too. Yes, the best science does raise new questions, and here there are plenty.
This affair may well become a case study not only for students studying journalism but for science students as example of the communication gap between scientists and the news media.