Public Interest Science and Scientists


What makes science ‘science’ and not something else? Do patents impact science? Does science make mistakes? What role do power and politics play in science? What is public interest science? What can scientists learn from non-scientists? How can citizens make use of science to effect social change? What do science and religion have in common? These are some of the important questions addressed by the articles on this page.

Highly Recommended Articles

How to be a Public Interest Scientist

Robinson, Claire (2015) Request to Public Interest Scientists: Make Your Work Publicly Available! GMWatch website.
For public interest science to benefit the public it has to reach the public. This starts with making the publication available through open access or by retaining copyright and posting an author’s version on your personal website. This useful article has pointers on how to create an effective one page summary to ensure that your work is understood and reported accurately.

O’Brien, M. H. (1993). Being a Scientist Means Taking Sides. BioScience, 706-708.
A truly important paper — should be read by every scientist when they start their career — and many times afterwards. “Once you are a scientist, which means as soon as you systematically ask questions about the universe, you take a political side. There are infinite questions that you could ask about the universe, but as only one scientist, you must necessarily choose to ask only certain questions. Asking certain questions means not asking other questions, and this decision has implications for society, for the environment, and for the future. The decision to ask any question, therefore, is necessarily a value-laden, social, political decision as well as a scientific decision.”

Before You Lose Your Way — Career Advice from George Monbiot
Investigative Journalist George Monbiot‘s advice to aspiring writers also applies to scientists and other researchers — there are many ways to get the experience you need to cover or research a particular area — and there are many ways to lose your way. A frugal lifestyle or a frugal research budget can result in greater freedom to pursue a full life and the whole truth.

Bereano, P. (1997) Technocracy and Democracy. In E. Smith and W. Sapp (Eds.), Plain Talk About the Human Genome Project. A Tuskegee University Conference on Its Promise and Perils….and Matters of Race. Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama 36088.
Insightful and important exploration of common beliefs about technology — that it increases human options and thus human freedom; that technology is neutral, objective and value-free; that problems caused by technology are solved by new technology; and that society changes technology and not the other way round. Bereano poses questions like — What if the “collateral damage” of a new technology is actually its main result? He proposes that an accurate understanding of a technology and its impacts must incorporate a “social relations model” of technology. Technology reflects the underlying power relationships in society because the powerful have the means to use and shape technology. Scientists must be aware of this when choosing research problems and offering their scientific advice to the public. The public must understand that implementation of a particular new technology is not “inevitable” — power relations impact societal choices. And beware, certain technologies undermine rather than promote freedom and democracy.

Wynne, B. (1992). Misunderstood Misunderstanding: Social Identities and Public Uptake of Science. Public understanding of science, 1(3), 281-304.
This paper draws general insights into the public reception of scientific knowledge from a case study of Cumbrian sheep farmers’ responses to scientific advice about the restrictions introduced after the Chernobyl radioactive fallout.” This fascinating case study documents multiple scientific failures in responding to the Chernobyl disaster. These include the failure of scientists to utilize local specialized knowledge when carrying out experiments, resulting in experimental failure. It also documents why increased public knowledge of the practice of science actually undermines belief in the infallibility of science, and the credibility of those professing scientific certainty. Valuable lessons lie within for scientists interested in pursuing truth — rather than merely imposing their own version of “truth.”


Patents and Science

So, A. D., Sampat, B. N., Rai, A. K., Cook-Deegan, R., Reichman, J. H., Weissman, R., & Kapczynski, A. (2008). Is Bayh-Dole Good for Developing Countries? Lessons from the US Experience. PLoS Biology 6(10), e262.
Many developing countries are busy implementing their own versions of the Bayh-Dole act. The Bayh-Dole act encouraged US universities to issue patents and to commercialize their research. This legislation has nevertheless had major negative implications for scientific openness and resulted in institutionalized conflicts of interest. Barely mentioned here, however, are negative unintended effects on the public interest research mission of science, which in many fields has collapsed, and which is arguably the biggest casualty of Bayh-Dole.

Tim Hubbard and James Love (2004). A New Trade Framework for Global Healthcare R&D PLoS Biol 2(2): e52.
It is a widely held belief that the private sector plays a key role in the development of new medicines and other bioscience innovations and that patents are necessary to incentivize their investment. The granting of monopoly patents is however only one way to finance R&D and it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the shortcomings of the patent system. Patents, among other problems, inhibit data sharing in science, restrict access to medicines and focus R&D on diseases of wealthy patients. This article is a good introduction to the reports and organizations calling for alternative systems to finance R&D. Among the possibilities discussed are that governments offer prizes instead of patent protection.


 Politics and Power in Science

Arancibia, F. (2013). Challenging the Bioeconomy: The Dynamics of Collective Action in Argentina. Technology in Society, 35(2), 79-92. Arancibia describes how citizens in Argentina gathered data and mobilized physicians — and ultimately scientists — to join their efforts to make visible and document the health problems caused by glyphosate sprayed on fields of transgenic herbicide-tolerant soybeans. The combined citizen and scientific research was the prerequisite for legal action to restrict spraying near homes and towns. The paper identifies three types of activism (citizen, citizen-scientist and scientist-expert) used to contest the “science-based” regulation of glyphosate in Argentina that failed to protect the public. These different alliances can play vital roles in social change around “science-based” policy and “science-based” regulatory frameworks.

Martin, Brian (1999). Suppression of Dissent in Science. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 7:105-135.
Abstract: There are numerous documented cases of attacks on dissident scientists, yet there is no established body of literature or standard theoretical frameworks for dealing with this phenomenon. Cases in three contentious areas – pesticides, fluoridation, and nuclear power – are used to illustrate processes and patterns of suppression. The evidence in these areas shows the possibilities and difficulties in drawing links between suppression and corporate, professional, and state power, respectively. Studies of suppression can provide a convenient probe into the exercise of power in science and more generally into the dynamics of expertise and legitimacy in a technological society.

Wilhelm Peekhaus (2010). The Neoliberal University and Agricultural Biotechnology: Reports From the Field. The Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30: 415-429.
Using agricultural biotechnology as the lens through which to focus analysis, the article outlines a number of empirical examples that illustrate how the free flow of knowledge either critical of or not readily appropriated by capital is being impeded.” Case studies include attempts to suppress research by British (Dr. Arpad Pusztai), Canadian (Dr. E. Ann Clark; Ian Mauro and his dissertation supervisor, Dr. Stéphane McLachlan) and American (Drs.Ignacio Chapela, and David Quist) scientists. Included are valuable comments from other scientists including Drs. Elson Shields, David Schubert, Norman Ellstrand, and Elena Álvarez-Buylla.

Gieryn, Thomas F. (1983). Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists. American Sociological Review 781-795.
Construction of a boundary between science and varieties of non-science is useful for scientists’ pursuit of professional goals: acquisition of intellectual authority and career opportunities; denial of these resources to “pseudoscientists”; and protection of the autonomy of scientific research from political interference. “Boundary-work” describes an ideological style found in scientists’ attempts to create a public image for science by contrasting it favorably to non-scientific intellectual or technical activities.” See also: Gieryn, Thomas F. Boundaries of Science (1995). Handbook of science and technology studies (1995): 393-443.

Turner, L. (2004). Biotechnology as Religion. Nature biotechnology, 22(6), 659-660.
Biotech is not just an assemblage of research programs and techniques. In a scientific and technological era, biotech also offers a surrogate religious framework for many individuals. We might want to explore the dangers associated with turning biotech into a belief system… The religion of biotech needs to be challenged by debunkers and skeptics.

Wayne R. and M. Staves (2008) Model Scientists. Communicative and Integrative Biology 1(1): 97-103.
The historical trajectory of scientific discovery can be seen as a series of peaks and plateaus, the latter occurring when strong external pressures push science in a fixed direction. This paper discusses external pressures past and present and offers some antidotes, including an extensive and valuable reading list.

Sex, Lies and Social Science (1995) Richard Lewontin, New York Review of Books.
A social science report is examined in detail. From 1995 but a wonderful read nevertheless. ($3 or a subscription required).


Big and Common: Pervasive scientific errors

Lambert, Christophe G., and Laura J. Black (2012). Learning from our GWAS Mistakes: from Experimental Design to Scientific Method. Biostatistics 13.2: 195-203.
“Often a deeper investigation into what appears as an isolated occurrence leads to appreciation of a broader problem.” Lambert and Black discuss both the basic experimental design errors and the larger “errors of omission” that continue to plague GWAS studies (genome-wide association studies trying to link genes to disease) — from the use of different DNA sources and the lack of block randomization of cases and controls to the chasing of correlations rather than attempting to falsify hypotheses. It also comments wisely on the value of mistakes – if we learn from them. This article is a timely reminder to all scientists of what makes science ‘scientific’.

Harold Hillman (2001) Research Practices in Need of Examination and Improvement. Science and Engineering Ethics 7: 7-14.
Is this the most interesting science paper never cited? Harold Hillman discusses various defects and shortcomings in common research methodologies. In particular, he pinpoints the assumptions that researchers use in their everyday experiments as particularly problematic. As a case in point, he identifies 24 assumptions involved in the subcellular fractionation of an enzyme activity. We suspect this paper could be profitably read by any scientist.

Sutherland WJ, Spiegelhalter D, and Burgman MA (2013). Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims. Nature 503:335-337
This list will help non-scientists to interrogate advisers and to grasp the limitations of evidence” and it is a valuable caution to all scientists not to let their conclusions and claims exceed the limitations of their data. Destined to be a modern classic.

Carl Persson, J. Erjefalt, L. Uller, M. Andersson, L. Greiff (2001). Unbalanced Research. TRENDS in Pharmacological Sciences 22:538-541.
If you work in the biological sciences you probably work on one of the following model systems: Arabidopsis, Drosophila, C. elegans, cell cultures, etc. Model systems are easy to work on and easy to get funded, but without a great deal of care they can lead you seriously astray. Do we give this possibility the consideration it deserves? This question is further explored, using a specific example, in this discussion by Persson titled Mice Are Not a Good Model of Human Airway Disease.

Couzin-Frankel, Jennifer (2013). When Mice Mislead. Science 342.6161: 922-925.
Tackling a long-standing disconnect between animal and human studies, some charge that animal researchers need stricter safeguards and better statistics to ensure their science is solid.” A revealing article about the state of mouse research — from tiny sample sizes to missing mice to unblinded and unrandomized studies to the “poor patients [who] are exposed to things they shouldn’t be” — it is clear that neither health nor scientific understanding is being well-served by the current situation.

John P. A. Ioannidis (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.  PLoS Medicine, Volume 2(8)e124
This classic essay by John Ioannidis discusses why “The probability that a research claim is true may depend on study power and bias, the number of other studies on the same question, and, importantly, the ratio of true to no relationships among the relationships probed in each scientific field.” Ioannidis advises on how to conduct and interpret research with an awareness of these problems. One (of many) crucial points he makes: “The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.



American Association of University Women Not agriculture or food specifically, but has useful information and a resource kit for pay equality. The AAUW also offers the opportunity to celebrate Equal Pay Day, which is the date on the following year up to which a typical US woman would have to work to earn the equal of a male colleague in the previous year. Equal Pay Day is usually held in April.

Brian Martin: Publications on Science, Technology and Society. Martin is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He researches vital public interest science topics including: suppression of scientific dissent, whistleblowing and the technology of war and peace.

Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide. Brian Martin. Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2013. Whistleblowers are vital to keeping the public informed — free download of this guide to whistleblowing with maximum safety and success.

Making Whistleblowing Work Two US organizations, The National Whistleblowers Center and GAP (Government Accountability Project), and the UK organization Public Concern At Work offer information and advice to those who see wrongdoing at work and wonder what to do about it. Are people in your organization acting illegally or against the public interest? What are your options? And how can you protect yourself?

Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies This Project is dedicated to helping ensure that, as nanotechnologies advance, possible risks are minimized, public and consumer engagement remains strong and the potential benefits of these new technologies are realized. Established in 2005 as a partnership between the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility As a service organization assisting federal & state public employees, PEER allows public servants to work as “anonymous activists” so that agencies must confront the message, rather than the messenger.

Retraction Watch A blog that identifies and discusses retractions of scientific papers. The blog helps to facilitate the “self-correcting” of scientific errors and it “provides a window into the scientific process”.

Save the Internet Works to protect internet freedom and net neutrality. The Coalition is two million everyday people who have banded together with thousands of nonprofit organizations, businesses and bloggers to protect Internet freedom.

Science for the People: 2014 Conference and Journal Archives The organization Science for the People was active  in the 1970s and ’80s. “Science for the People tackled the militarization of scientific research, the corporate control of research agendas, [and] the political implications of sociobiology and other scientific theories.” By providing insightful analysis and a social movement, SftP “above all sought to mobilize people working in scientific fields to become active in agitating for science, technology, and medicine that would serve social needs rather than military and corporate interests.” Over 40 years later, many of their archived articles read like today’s news. A invaluable resource for scientists and others who want to understand the corrupted power of science — as well as its potential for good and how to achieve it.

Scientists for Global Responsibility British membership-based organization that promotes ethical science, design and technology, based on the principles of openness, accountability, peace, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Sheldon Krimsky: Corrupted Science Sheldon Krimsky’s books and website provide a critical examination of breaking issues in science and technology. His Corrupted Science project documents how conflicts of interest undermine the scientific process and the wider public interest.

The Mermaid’s Tale Subtitled A Conversation about the Nature of Genetic Causation in Evolution, Development and Ecology, the mermaid’s tale blog has amusing and erudite discussions of topics that range from disease causation to probabilities. Contributors include: Ken Weiss, Anne Buchanan and Holly Dunsworth.