A Weekly Advocacy Message from Mary Woolley: What about the wave of science doubt?

Dear Research Advocate:

The cover story of this month’s National Geographic describes the recent wave of science doubt as a “pop culture meme,” featuring in-the-news examples like climate change and vaccines, and discussion of tough challenges like replicability of research, scientific literacy (of note: increased science literacy has been shown to lead to increased polarization of opinion about science), and what is meant, anyway, by effective “science communication”? The article doesn’t mention what I often call the “invisibility” problem (see, for example, data showing low percentages of Americans who can name a living scientist), but that topic was addressed directly and indirectly in several sessions at last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Data from a Pew Research poll of AAAS members show that a majority of scientists now believe that it is important to engage with the public, with a high percentage saying they do so regularly. That is welcome news. Another AAAS session brought out the importance of the quality of that engagement, exploring connecting with non-scientists in ways that is positive for both scientist and non-scientist. And, Professor Susan Fiske of Princeton spoke to an overflow crowd in her featured session about work showing that all of us – people in general – for better or worse, and with consequences to match – make quick judgments about others’ intent and their degree of competency. (Perception of competency + perception of good intent = trust.) Fiske noted that politicians are almost never trusted, although they are sometimes viewed as competent. Scientists are mostly considered competent, but they are also considered to be cold, a judgment that can throw their intentions into question. Fiske said that it is possible to change perceptions about scientists if they convey warmth and motivation to cooperate, showing ‘worthy intent.’ (If you have followed Research!America’s work in communicating to the non-science trained public, you know that we advocate saying and conveying, “I work for you.” That advice fits right in here.)

The American public has so many reasons to want research to succeed. A moving op-ed in The Huffington Post yesterday highlights the personal impact of a degenerative medical condition when there is no treatment available. Vicki Wilson’s mother has Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a rare neurological disease related to Parkinson’s. The symptoms of an unmet medical need are not just felt by the patient; their loved ones must endure the unendurable … the knowledge that nothing can be done. Ms. Wilson’s mother is not an isolated case; rare diseases afflict more than 25 million Americans. Tens of thousands more when you take loved ones into account.

Funding for rare disease research – public and private – is grossly insufficient. That’s a message that advocates for rare disease research will be communicating next week on Capitol Hill. Congress can help harness more research resources from both public and private sectors through comprehensive, all-sector initiatives like 21st Century Cures. Yesterday, Research!America convened a meeting of members of our alliance with 21st Century Cures initiative congressional staffers. The discussion about provisions in the legislative draft was lively and productive, but the conversation is not over. The staff reminded the group that input is crucial. They reiterated that comments don’t necessarily need to come in the form of a full position statement on letterhead. Any comments or changes, however informal, are welcome via email to cures@mail.house.gov.

Also next week on Capitol Hill is an NIH 101 briefing hosted by the Coalition to Promote Research (CPR). The Friday, Feb. 27 noon briefing will feature Howard Kurtzman, Ph.D., of the American Psychological Association, and Research!America board member Keith Yamamoto, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco. Please encourage members of your congressional delegation – especially those recently elected – and their staff to attend. RSVPs are accepted here.

Wednesday March 11 is Research!America’s annual meeting and Advocacy Awards dinner. As I mentioned last week, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-08) and Mr. Alex Silver of the Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Partnership, a Research!America member, will be speaking at the annual meeting (free to members; click here.) That evening is our annual awards event. Click here to reserve your place.


Mary Woolley

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