In my new talk, I strongly emphasize that scientists need to be strategically aware of how they are communicating their knowledge and their results in politically contentious areas. If they’re not careful, not only might they communicate badly–but what they say might actually backfire.
It’ hard to think of a better case study than the recent controversy over the latest work by the biotech firm Advanced Cell Technology. ACT’s scientists published a study in Nature about deriving pluripotent stem cell lines from single cells taken from an embryo, a result touted as “an approach that does not harm embryos.” Only, in the actual experiment, many embryos were destroyed–a fact not lost on opponents of embryonic stem cell research.
Over at Blog.Bioethics.Net, Glenn McGee rightly excoriates ACT, and notes how many right wing tropes they have played directly into:
Believe it or not I was working on a column about the dangers of well-intentioned but hype-seeking stem cell researchers – finished it actually – before the Advanced Cell Technology people decided that the correct way to please the right to life crowd was to take IVF embryos (all together now, chant with the predictable pro-life response: “IVF=murder”) that have been put through genetic diagnosis (“PGD=eugenics”) and grow their cells in a way that might or might not yield good stem cell colonies but likely would produce at least a few totipotent cells as a byproduct (“cloning is evil”).
To make sure the experiment aimed at pleasing pro-life would actually work, they tried it on 16 embryos first, then killed them all (Inside the mind of Richard Doerflinger: “please, please let these guys stay in the paper just one more day…”) and justified the fact that none of the people who were supposed to love their experiment actually did by calling them (Lanza’s words) “irrational” (“scientist=athiest or anti-catholic”).
If there is a school to teach scientists how to screw up the pursuit of PR, ACT has the professors on retainer.
We have a long, long way to go, folks….