The following multipart blog series was inspired by a conversation among a few friends about scientific communication, the current state of education in science and scientific integrity. To adequately cover such a broad topic, I’ve chosen to break it up into smaller, connected parts.
Shill. Nothing makes me angrier when discussing my work than someone accusing me of being a shill. According to Merriam-Webster, to shill is:
to talk about or describe someone or something in a favorable way because you are being paid to do it
Calling someone a shill questions the very integrity of the target. But worse, haphazardly calling a scientist a shill only because a corporation employs them demonstrates a lack of understanding of the scientific method. As scientists, we are trained from the beginning to go where the data take us. We are taught to determine the proper controls for an experiment so that we are able to interpret the results in a scientifically sound and consistent manner. When we are true to our scientific training, only data will influence our scientific conclusions. Money should play no part.
But, the pursuit of profits has resulted in unethical scientific behavior. The most well known example involves the dangers of cigarette smoking. A United States Federal Court found (pdf) that the industry “engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes….” It is unfair to let the unethical actions of a relatively few scientists impugn the credibility of all scientists. And yet, as industry scientists, we find ourselves in this predicament: how are laypersons supposed to grasp legitimate scientific findings in an environment lacking trust? How do we make the term “shill” irrelevant in scientific discourse? What factors contribute to the mistrust of corporate science and how might we start to address them?
A general mistrust of corporations by the general public. In an age where corporations are viewed as putting profits over people, industry scientists suffer from guilt by association. While there may be little we can do about non-scientific areas where corporations get a bad name, we can effectively communicate the benefits of our science to the greater welfare of society. Successfully articulating the positive impacts of science can help insulate our work from peripheral, irrelevant issues.
The opaqueness of the commercial research environment. The necessity of a certain level of secrecy initially required to protect the value of commercially lucrative research also exacerbates the atmosphere of mistrust. Again, there appears to be little we can do as scientists to alleviate this condition. However, once intellectual property protection has been secured, we can push to communicate our discoveries, including the processes, as transparently as possible.
Legitimate acts of fraud by scientists. This is one thing scientists can directly influence. We must be unafraid to stand up against scientific fraud. As Justice Brandeis said, and I personally learned as a graduate student, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The foundation of our credibility as scientists rests in the integrity of our data and conclusions. We must protect this at all costs, including advocating for strong whistleblower protections. I would suggest that self-policing in an environment lacking trust is insufficient. We need strong objective oversight of science by a technically literate public and government.
Changing the atmosphere of mistrust of corporate science requires adherence to the highest standards of scientific integrity, a scientifically literate public, and effective communication of science to our public stakeholders. These last two areas will be expanded upon in upcoming entries.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)