“Hundreds of hateful comments in a single day”
Adam Levy: 0:03
Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode: online harassment and online community.
In this series, we’re investigating how the society in which science takes place can impact that research, as well as the researchers carrying it out.
As previous episodes have laid out, these impacts to the freedom and safety of scientists can have a wide range of forms, from government interference in science, to careers split in two by conflict.
But how does the online world interact with these threats to our research world? Does it serve as a refuge and a community? Or is social media yet another way in which scientists can find their research and their lives under attack?
Of course, the answer is, to a certain extent, both. Sometimes at the same time. And in today’s episode will speak with three researchers about the online attacks and online support that they’ve found.
And stay tuned till the end because each episode in this series concludes with a follow-up sponsored slot from the International Science Council, (the ISC), about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science.
First up today is Chris Jackson, director of sustainable geosciences at the engineering company Jacobs, in the UK.
In 2020, when Chris was still in academia, he was invited to present the Royal Institution Christmas lectures on British TV. This would make him the first ever Black academic to host these historic talks.
But what should have been a cause for celebration quickly became a cause for concern. In fact, some messages Chris received were concerning enough that he reported them to the police. I spoke to Chris and he started out explaining to me the significance of the Christmas lectures.
Chris Jackson: 02:18
Yeah, the Christmas lectures have been running I think it’s over 185, 185-186 years now, started by Michael Faraday. They are a lecture series which occurred every Christmas. And it was an opportunity for some aspects of science to be conveyed to the general public.
You know, back in the day, it wasn’t televised. But increasingly now, you know, it is televised now. So it reaches a huge audience. And we managed to sneak in with quite a bit of geology in that 2020 edition of the Christmas lectures. And it was principally around the the theme of climate change.
Adam Levy: 02:55
What did it mean to you personally, to be invited to present?
Chris Jackson: 02:59
It was terrifying. It’s kind of really daunting, really. It meant a huge opportunity to talk about something I’m very excited about, you know, geology.
You kind of want to get that right. It’s also talking about climate change, which is, it’s a huge social issue. So you want to make sure you get that messaging right.
For me, personally, never having thought as when I was growing up, I was ever going to present the Christmas lectures, you know, it was personally very daunting that I just didn’t want to make a big mess of it.
And as a, as a Black academic, especially so, given that not been a Black person presenting it for 182 years at that point.
So there was all those emotions kind of scientifically, as well as personally going on when I was asked to do it.
Adam Levy: 03:47
Did you have a sense when you were invited that it would be, I guess, covered in the media as quite a historic thing in the way that it was, being the first at Black academic to be invited?
Chris Jackson: 03:58
Absolutely not. And that’s for two reasons. One is, I’ve never watched the Royal Institution Christmas lunches. So because I didn’t, I grew up in a family, which wasn’t particularly science-focused.
And I was never a science kid growing up. And secondarily, it was never mentioned at all, in the early communications between myself and the Royal Institution about the opportunity to co-present the show.
So, you know, it wasn’t like, “Oh, by the way, Chris, would you like to come and do this thing, because it’d be great to have a Black person?” And it was never mentioned. And I think it was months after I was asked that that aspect of the significance of me appearing in it became clear to me.
Adam Levy: 04:34
And around that time, or perhaps a bit later, can you describe the response that you started to experience through social media?
Chris Jackson: 04:42
Oh, it was very polarized, of course. You know, there was lots of really positive responses from colleagues, friends, peers, people who were geoscientists, people who worked in climate change who were really excited, because this really important topic was going to get the kind of platform they felt it deserved.
And then at the other end of the scale, there was just the hostility towards I guess, a combination of things. Not just the fact that it was going to be about climate change. But also the fact that part of what was being talked about was the fact that I was Black.
Adam Levy: 05:13
And how did that affect you at the time? Did it catch you off guard? Or was it something that you would have, to some extent, unfortunately expected?
Chris Jackson: 05:21
I think, I think by then, and remember, this was sort of, the murder of George Floyd had happened had been this kind of, I won’t say awakening, because like, lots of people are already alert to the fact that there was already racial injustice in the world.
But like, in that summer, when a lot of people, you know, people were being exposed to or learning more about racism. It was, you know, there have been incidents of this, of course, for people who were significantly more famous and public-facing than me.
So it didn’t really surprise me because it was just part of the, at that point, expected hostility towards any conversation around race and racism.
So it didn’t really catch me off guard. It was still pretty horrible. Once that sense that part of this narrative leading up to this, this lecture series was going to be around the fact I was Black, and it was a historic moment, suddenly, I was like, “Okay, I can see where I can see where this might go.”
Adam Levy: 06:14
Given that it was pretty horrible. Did it change in any way your your desire to carry out the Christmas lectures?
Chris Jackson: 06:24
No, no, because that sort of hostility is partly brought to bear because, you know, some people have little else to do apart from just to be hostile towards people.
And then, you know, the kind of the subplot for them is, “You know, can we can we intimidate people into, you know, giving up opportunities, and, you know, once they take up the opportunity, diminishing their performance in it?”
You know, my reaction was very much “Well, I’m not going to let this historic moment pass me by, I’m going to do everything to kind of almost prove the critics wrong, and make it clear that I was a reasonable choice to give these lectures.”
Now, I wasn’t the only qualified Black person giving these lectures I was chosen to do so I’m still gonna do the best I could. So there was absolutely no way I was going to let it put me off. And if anything, I used it as fuel for the fire, really.
Adam Levy: 07:14
Yeah. How did you aim to respond to this online abuse you’re facing?
Chris Jackson: 07:19
Just to talk more about the historic nature of the opportunity that come to me, I think. It made me in many ways, kind of dial it up a bit more.
Because I wanted to talk about the scientific subject to the lectures. And so I wanted to make sure that that was talked about, of course, but also the other kind of story, which was going alongside that about me in the fact I was the first Black person for 182 years to give this lecture. I wanted to make sure that, in that, despite all the abuse, I talked about the fact I was Black, I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about discrimination more generally.
So not just about anti-Black racism, but discrimination against many different groups that historically have stopped those groups also having the opportunity to present a Royal Institution Christmas lecture.
So I tried to open it up so that people could get a kind of bigger view, if you will, of all of the discriminatory things that can happen that can stop people from having opportunity, and why basically these opportunities are not as equitable and meritocratic as people might think they are.
Adam Levy: 08:22
Now you were able to have these conversations really actively at this time. But of course, some people facing online discrimination or abuse, maybe don’t have the same the same platform, the same audience.
How do you think it maybe affects other marginalized academics and their ability to conduct their research freely and safely, to face this kind of online abuse?
Chris Jackson: 08:45
Yeah, this is it, right? I think my story is my story. You know, what happened to me is what happened to me. And I was very lucky in that I had a good support network, I had the personality where I was inspired to be more outspoken by the online abuse I face.
But as you hinted, there’s some people whose lives and livelihoods are destroyed by the abuse they get online. And, you know, their careers, essentially don’t get started because of that intimidation, because of that discrimination.
So we shouldn’t be really talking about like, “What did you do? What would you advise people to do? How did you handle it?” We should be talking about the fact that, you know, to the people who are perpetuating this abuse and eradicating it.
So nobody, irrespective of what their personality type is, or their both support they have, nobody should be facing this.
It’s just not good enough to say that it’s going to happen. I think we need to be much more proactive about eradicating it then simply reactive when it arises,
Adam Levy: 09:41
Do you think there’s anything that institutions can do to be proactive in that kind of way?
Chris Jackson: 09:48
Yeah, they need to have very strong disciplinary processes and procedures that when discrimination arises, either perpetuated by somebody external to the institution or by somebody within it, remember, that does also happen, that the people get disciplined.
And also one thing I’ve talked about quite a lot if the is the fact that that disciplinary procedure is made as public as possible, because you want to put off other people from doing it and make it clear that that behaviour is not acceptable.
And on the other side, for people who’ve been victims of discrimination, you want them to have faith in the reporting system and the and the disciplinary procedure that it’s worth their while reporting an incident. The institutions can do a lot more than they’re currently doing.
Adam Levy: 10:38
How did the events that you’ve experienced in 2020 and beyond contribute to your eventual decision to leave academia?
Chris Jackson: 10:47
I think the events of 2020, which were very public, which kind of inspired me to become increasingly vocal about these these issues, ultimately brought me into conflict with people locally within the institution I happened to be working with at the time.
And because I was being vocal, and you know, and I was talking and I had these opportunities to talk about, you know, kind of systemic racism, people’s kind of capability to conduct racially-motivated microaggressions eventually came to me, not somebody else, because I was the person talking about it.
Kind of made me realize that whether it’s some random troll on Twitter, or it’s some body in your leadership line, and there are different types of racism being perpetuated in different ways by different people, they are still massively racially insensitive.
And ultimately, in academia, more generally, you’re, you’re kind of like, “You know what, I’m gonna go somewhere else, and do something else. Because I just find this place is just not very good for me,”
Adam Levy: 11:47
Chris Jackson there. Online harassment can take many forms. And researchers can be targeted for a number of reasons, whether that’s their race, identity, or the very research that they carry out.
As Chris mentioned, his Christmas lectures focused on climate change. And in fact, our next interviewee is a climate scientist herself.
And researchers in fields that have become so actively politicized can all too often find themselves in the social media crosshairs.
So before we get to that interview, here’s Lauren Kurtz, who we heard from in our second episode of this series, discussing scientific integrity.
Lauren is executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund , a nonprofit to help environmental scientists in the United States who find themselves under fire.
Lauren Kurtz: 12:44
I mean, I do think social media has been a tool to try to silence scientists. It can be a very powerful tool for public education, but especially ways in which people can sign up for social media accounts anonymously, or use bots, it can definitely create a very aggressive, nasty pile-on effect, where a scientist who has done some sort of politically controversial research.
Or in my mind more commonly, when a scientist has spoken out, for example, about the importance of taking action on climate change, they can just be inundated with really awful messages.
Adam Levy: 13:20
And our next interviewee is unfortunately, no stranger to really awful messages. Katharine Hayhoe is based at Texas Tech University, and is also chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy.
And she is one of the most famous climate scientists in the world, engaging in an incredibly wide range of science communication activities, from social media to primetime news. So to start off, I wanted to find out how she got into communicating climate science in the first place.
Katharine Hayhoe: 13:55
We moved to Texas about 15 years ago, and I inadvertently became the only climate scientist, the first climate scientist, within a 200 mile radius of where I was in West Texas.
And within just a few months of arriving there, I got my first invitation to speak to a community group who had questions about climate change.
And they figured out well, “Here’s a climate scientist, sort of, like you’d say, oh, here’s a polar bear just showed up. Here’s a climate scientist, let’s ask her. You know, how does she, why does she think this thing is real? And why is she studying it? And why does it matter?”
And that was my first experience talking to people sort of outside the choir about why this mattered. And that’s where my interest in effective public communication began, because I’m absolutely convinced that everybody needs to know that this thing is not only real and serious, but it’s affecting them here now. And all of our collective choices will determine our future.
Adam Levy: 14:51
Can you give us sense then of since then, how broadly you’ve communicated climate change?
Katharine Hayhoe: 14:57
As broadly as possible. I am always willing to give something new a try from trying out Tik Tok trying out Pinterest. I write essays. I have a YouTube series called Global Weirding.
I’ve written a book called Saving Us. I do everything I can think of to get the word out in any way, shape, or form.
Adam Levy: 15:19
Well, how big a part of this communication process has online harassment become?
Katharine Hayhoe: 15:26
Well, first of all, we know that when we take anything online, that really opens the floodgates to trolls.
And when we’re not interacting with each other, looking at each other face-to-face, it is very easy to start to dehumanize the other person in your mind. And so that, I think, explains so much of the vitriol that we get.
But even before the internet, I mean, it’s it’s such a politicized topic. And as soon as you speak up on a topic that people view as a threat to their identity, the hate is going to come. And what’s happened is the internet has just facilitate that hate.
So, you know, it used to be that I would receive that hate via letters or emails, or phone calls, or official complaints to my university. And those certainly still arrive.
But now the deluge of hundreds of hateful comments in a single day that the internet facilitates, whether it’s on Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, or even Instagram, the volume is just 100 times more than it would be without the Internet.
Adam Levy: 16:26
How does this end up affecting you personally, both on an emotional level and your ability and willingness to conduct this work?
Katharine Hayhoe: 16:35
When you’re attacked like that, it’s it’s scary, especially when people attack you with threats. And so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sure my personal information is off the internet. My university office isn’t even listed.
We were, we were living somewhere where I started to get letters and messages delivered to my home.
And that’s really scary. And one of the reasons that we considered and eventually did move, because you just imagine somebody showing up at your door. And it’s not, you know, the average hater that you worry about, it’s just the the person who, just, you know, the the tail of the distribution, the person who’s willing to go a little bit further than just type out angry messages online.
So so that’s, that’s part of the concern. There’s the safety concern. And of course, as a woman, it’s, it’s proportionately greater. But then there’s also the the toll it takes on your emotional health, of being told on a daily basis. And sometimes, like the last couple of days, you and I are speaking just after the latest IPCC report came out, and the last few days, the deluge online has just been overwhelming.
And so in this case, is probably every one minute, I’m being told that I’m a piece of something or an idiot, or, you know, who knows what, it does take a toll emotionally.
And so what I had to do when I when I decided to engage publicly, is that I give up my right to be correctly represented. If somebody says something like, “Oh, haven’t you heard of blank?”
And I’m like, of course, I’ve heard of natural cycles. Who do you think studies natural cycles, you fool. But and you know, this, too, I’m sure you deal with this too.
If I want to stand up for my right to be correctly-represented, I’m actually just going to fall exactly into the trap, they’re hoping me to fall into.
That all of my energy will be absorbed into trying to justify myself and it’s not going to change their mind at all. It’s just going to take my attention and my focus away from other things that matter more, from reaching to people who are actually willing to listen. And then also to reminding myself that who I am is not dependent on their opinion of me,
Adam Levy: 18:40
You mentioned that, to some extent, these threats are so threatening because of your gender, because you’re a woman.
Is there an element to which the threats come through a lens of sexism as well. And not just because you’re talking about climate change, but because you’re talking about climate change, and you are a woman?
Katharine Hayhoe: 18:59
Yes, there absolutely is a gender-based lens to this. So I noticed quite some time ago, that the vast majority of attacks I was receiving, if I had to put a number on it, I would say more than 99% were coming from people who self identify as men, specifically, typically white men.
The language that I receive is often very gendered, you know, words that you would apply to a woman, like, you know, horror and bitch and even worse words. People telling me to get back to the kitchen, that the problem with the world is, there’s a woman, you know, woman trying to do science.
So there definitely is this, this gender component to it. And a couple of years ago, I conducted an experiment on my Facebook page. So there was another climate scientist named Jonathan Baker. We took turns replying to people’s comments with the same replies.
And what we found was if I replied, It would always escalate. Whereas when Jonathan engaged with them, he had a 50/50 chance of de-escalating the situation, they would say, “Oh, that’s very interesting. Tell me more.”
Nobody ever said that to me. So that’s again, part of why I don’t think there’s any point in engaging with the trolls is because they just aren’t going to listen.
Adam Levy: 20:16
You’ve mentioned already this idea of relinquishing the right to be correctly represented online. Do you have any other advice or techniques you’ve adapted over the years to help you cope with the situation?
Katharine Hayhoe: 20:31
Yes, I definitely do. So I noticed that when, you know, really nasty comments would come in, if I had them on my phone, and I was checking them while I was making dinner or sitting around afterwards with my family, it would put me in a bad mood.
And that was affecting my relationship with my family and with my friends. And so taking social media off my phone so I can only access it during work hours, was really helpful. And then also blocking. I highly recommend blocking.
And you know, what, trolls hate to be blocked. Trolls want to engage, they want to argue. In fact, arguing with them is it feeds them and it strengthens them, you’re giving them exactly what they want, when you engage.
But when you block them and ignore them, it drives them nuts. And then also, too, when people say something really nice to me that just warms my heart, I put it in a folder.
And when I’m feeling discouraged or beaten down or depressed, or as if I’m just banging my head against a brick wall, I go and I look at some of the nice things people say, and it just absolutely restores my faith in humanity and gives me that encouragement to keep on going.
Adam Levy: 21:42
That’s, I suppose advice for the individual for the researcher, do you have any thoughts or advice for institutions whose researchers might be going through similar things,
Katharine Hayhoe: 21:53
I would love to see our institutions be able to better protect us because what I’ve learned myself is our institutions just aren’t built to do that.
But really realizing that it’s not only about intellectual safety, but also the physical safety of people you’re probably familiar with. And some others listening might be familiar with our colleague, Tom Meixner from from Arizona.
And he lost his life last year, was killed by a student who he and others had filed multiple police reports on. And somehow he got into the building with a gun, threatened a number of people.
And Tom bravely confronted him and lost his life. This is a reality in the world that we live in. And I don’t think that our institutions have come to grips with that yet,
Adam Levy: 22:43
The online space isn’t just a place where harassment takes place. I mean, if it was, then none of us would actually be there. In what ways do you actually get something positive out of being on social media online?
Katharine Hayhoe: 22:56
So I have enjoyed Twitter for so many years. And I’m just absolutely heartbroken about the turn that it’s taken since last October.
Because, as you know, the trolling is just up orders of magnitude now, and many folks have, in our community, in the climate science community, have left Twitter for other platforms.
And though, but for many years, I mean, I would find out if I published a paper if that paper was released on Twitter before the journal emailed me is just a phenomenal place to keep up to date on the science.
And so a couple of years ago, I created a list of scientists who do climate on Twitter, and I still have over 3000 members on the Scientists Who Do Climate Twitter list.
And it just gives me such enormous pleasure and joy to just be able to, rather than you know, trying to collect all these different journals and read all the different title pages, to just be able to scan through an update of the latest science, um, you know, at my fingertips, I just think that’s tremendous.
And not only the information. Social media has enabled us to develop relationships and to maintain relationships, and to even learn more about each other that we wouldn’t ordinarily have learned because often people share a bit of their personal life on social media too.
So, you know, with me, people know about my cat now. They know that I, I love going skiing with my family. It’s a way to build and maintain relationships that is really, really ’valuable.
Adam Levy: 24:16
That was Katharine Hayhoe. As Katherine touched on there, social media isn’t just a place where researchers face attacks. It’s also a place to connect. Researchers across the world and across disciplines find community through connecting online.
But for some researchers, this community is especially meaningful because finding researchers going through the same things within one’s department, or even institution, can be tough.
For example, for researchers who are LGBTQIA+ plus, (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, or otherwise part of the community), Alfredo Carpineti is a science journalist for ifl science. But he’s also chair and founder of organization Pride in STEM, an organization for LGBTQIA+ community within research. And so I wanted to pick his brains about the role that the online world has had in forming this space.
Alfredo Carpineti 25:21
PRIDE in STEM did not start with any major goal in mind. We’re just a group of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the UK that wanted to march at Pride in London back in 2016. A lot of people started emailing us asking for advice and support from across the UK. And we realized that there was something missing, that something was needed.
Over the following months, we started doing events, showcasing the work of queer scientists and engineers, people in tech and maths.
But from there, we have moved on significantly. We also work with youth groups, we work with politicians, we do so much more.
And the goal is still to support the LGBTQ people in STEM, but also to argue for reforms, to an end of harrassment and discrimination in the scientific disciplines. So whether it’s in academia or industry,
Adam Levy: 26:34
Now, how big a part in Pride in STEM is online community, and why is that an important thing for LGBTQIA+ researchers?
Alfredo Carpineti: 26:44
The online part has been fundamental for the establishment and the continuous success of private stem. We wouldn’t have realized that there was such a need for a group like ours to exist without an online presence.
Being online, it is so fundamental for our success and our fight for equal recognition. I think the online community aspect, it’s also been very important in actually making us feel like a community.
I think a lot of people, me included, went through their PhDs, postdocs, or university years, not feeling like there was anyone like them at the senior level, that they did not see themselves, that they could be successfully an out and proud scientist.
This is due to a lack of role models. Every single underrepresented group has experienced that. So also, an online community helps you also provide very useful and sometime lifesaving information because people talk and they can tell you if, for example, a university or an employer is good, supporting.
Adam Levy: 28:15
Do you have any stories or anecdotes that kind of capture what this community has been able to achieve for researchers?
Alfredo Carpineti: 28:22
Probably the thing that I am most proud of, we started the the International Day of LGBTQIA+ people in STEM, which is celebrated on November 18. That started as an online conversation.
And this day now, it will celebrate it in Antarctica. So all the seven continents we celebrate this day, and it would not have been possible without an online community that extends way more than was PRIDE in STEM, or every single organization, not every single individual would be able to achieve.
And I think it is phenomenal. It really gives me hope that we can make long lasting changes to the world.
Adam Levy: 29:13
Could you explain a bit more why online community is so important specifically for LGBTQIA+ researchers? What can it do that, I suppose, within the institution, communities, or maybe within regions or country communities can’t achieve?
Alfredo Carpineti: 29:32
I think the importance of online community comes down to several aspects. One of them is safety. And not everyone can be out safely in the workplace, in the country. And so online communities, given the ability of being anonymous, might allow you to be part of the same community as you are without having to reveal your name, your affiliation, etc.
There is also the concept of role models. So an online community, especially with people of different ages and different stages of their career, really can show oh, I do belong. Oh, there is a place for people like me here.
Adam Levy: 30:26
Does online community provide similar functions for other marginalized communities in academia, for example, scientists with disabilities?
Alfredo Carpineti: 30:38
Yes, it is great to see that there are so many other groups, many of which we collaborate with, that have been able to find and fund communities online. It is great that we can create these online communities and it’’s great that every underrepresented groups that I know of has created these communities and this greater we can work together to fight these issues.
Adam Levy: 31:07
Now, over the last few years, there’s been increasing visibility of LGBTQIA+ people in general and and science is no exception to that. To what extent is this increased visibility a double edged sword that can actually cause problems as well as actually resolve problems?
Alfredo Carpineti: 31:29
I don’t think that visibility is ever a double edged sword. Being visible can put a target on your back, boss. I want to refuse that argument because it puts all the effort about this, about the issues, on the queer person or the marginalized person.
Being visible is not the issue. The issue is the other people. They cannot accept that science is for everyone. Visibility comes with a risk, I would say, because we cannot just pretend that visibility is great. You are putting your head above the parapet and it is difficult. I have been harrassed lot online not just for being who I am doing what I do.
But at the end of the day, my visibility helps a lot of people and the people get mad and send me hate messages, hate mail. Don’t say is they live a sad, pathetic life and said I have a great life and it sucks to be them.
Adam Levy: 32:45
That was Alfredo Carpineti. And that’s it for this episode of Working Scientist looking at the freedom and safety of researchers online.
Of course, there are so many ways that being an LGBTQIA+ researcher, or conducting research relevant to LGBTQIA+ lives, can lead to researchers being targeted by challenges and threats.
And we’ll be returning to that topic in the next episode, the sixth of this seven-part series. Now it’s time for our sponsored slot from the International Science Council about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.
Françoise Baylis 33:39
This science is advancing at a pace that appears to be outstripping our understanding of some of the societal and ethical implications.
Ocean Mercier 33:49
In Indigenous cultures, I think there is a strong association between knowledges and responsibilities.
Marnie Chesterton 33:57
Hello and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we are exploring freedom and responsibility in science. I’m Marnie Chesterton, and this episode is all about new technologies. What do developments in fields like gene editing, machine learning, or climate engineering mean for scientific responsibility? How can we harness their potential while mitigating their potential harms? And can an Indigenous perspective help us to think more carefully about the challenges they pose?
Scientific progress has enormously increased our ability to understand the world, but also to change it. And new technologies have the huge potential to impact our planet and the life it contains.
Françoise Baylis 34:36
We have these exciting new possibilities, but I think there’s also, at the same time, a bit of concern of a risk of harm.
Marnie Chesterton 34:49
This is Professor Françoise Baylis, a philosopher and bioethicist at Dalhousie University.
Françoise Baylis 34:58
These harms can be accidental or inadvertent or they can be deliberate. And so you can think, for example, about our capacity to make changes to the DNA of a variety of living organisms, but we’re also thinking about the ways in which we might modify the human. And I think people, myself included, are very concerned about what we put under the banner of heritable human genome editing, where we anticipate that changes made to the genome would not just be with that one individual, but ultimately would be passed on to subsequent generations. You can anticipate and see positive benefits that would support the common good, but you can also imagine the ways in which this very same technology could be used in pursuit of goals or objectives that might be questionable and even objectionable.
Marnie Chesterton 35:05
When it comes to technologies like this, which pose risks as well as benefits, what kind of limits should there be to their use and their development? And who decides what those limits are?
Françoise Baylis 35:56
What I think we’re seeing now is enthusiasm for science in terms of some of the benefits we could all get, concern on the part of the scientific community that it has to have almost for some, I would say, complete freedom, to inquire with the idea that somehow knowledge production is always good. And then I think from a societal perspective, a real concern to sort of say, look, given that you can anticipate that there might be some harms, we can’t just have this be a free for all, and society does have a place for some kind of regulation. And I think one of the things that’s become really of central importance is improving our understanding of governance.
Marnie Chesterton 36:07
For governance to be effective, Françoise says there are some strategies and mechanisms we should consider.
Françoise Baylis 36:53
In an ideal world, what you’re looking for is some kind of global international agreement on priorities. Self-regulation, I think, is an important element of the responsible stewardship of science, but it can’t be the be-all and end-all. So I think we need to look at a range of other kinds of mechanisms, things like legislation and regulations, court cases and judicial rulings. I think that patents and licensing are a form of regulation because if you can’t get a patent because of the way in which you’ve done the science, that’s a serious limitation. You could also think about the research ethics review guidelines as a form of governance, just as you could think about the rules for publication. If you can’t get your work published, that’s a real disincentive for doing research in a particular kind of way.
Marnie Chesterton 37:00
But we also need to think about the overarching principles that guide how science is done so that new technologies create benefits that outweigh their harms.
Françoise Baylis 37:51
We want a system of science that’s open, transparent, honest, accountable. At the same time, I’m a very strong proponent of social justice. Very often, harms and benefits do not devolve onto the same people, and so some people benefit and different people are harmed. And so I’m really committed to things like inclusiveness, fairness, non-discrimination, solidarity. And I think that when you’re looking big picture at new technologies, we need to have our eye on the values and principles that should be driving our science so that it’s for the benefit of us all.
Marnie Chesterton 38:01
Throughout this series, we’ve examined how our attitudes to knowledge and responsibility should shape the way research is done in the twenty-first century. And although our ideas need to be updated in light of new challenges, we can also gain a lot by drawing on traditional perspectives.
Ocean Mercier 38:41
Knowledge is often associated with really key values in Indigenous cultures. So in Māori culture, it’s associated with exploration, but also with perseverance. And there are responsibilities that come with knowledges.
Marnie Chesterton 38:58
This is Ocean Mercier, an associate professor at the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Ocean Mercier 39:15
As Māori, we talk about being kaitiaki or guardians, and we can be guardians of environments or guardians of our human charges, but we can also be guardians of knowledge. And so there’s responsibilities everywhere you look in Indigenous societies, and that can really put the brakes on in terms of us thinking about new technologies, but in a good way because we’re thinking, okay, well, what are my core values here in relation to this new thing or that new thing? Is it going to cause net good in this web of relationships within which I exist? Or are there harms that we need to really think quite carefully about?
Marnie Chesterton 39:23
In her research, Ocean works on a programme which brings Māori social scientists together with scientists working on gene technologies.
Ocean Mercier 40:07
Right now we’re working on gene silencing, or RNA interference, to develop a targeted treatment for Varroa mite. Now, Varroa mite is a real hassle for apiarists, for beekeepers. It can destroy whole colonies, hives of bees, and so our only current method of controlling the Varroa mite are the broad spectrum pesticides that are very damaging to the bees themselves also. So with the gene silencing, we are finding some promising results, allowing the bees to just be bees and make honey. So where do we come into it as Māori? Well, first of all, Māori have a vested interest in beekeeping as an industry, and I’m not going to claim that Māori did molecular modifications in our traditions, but we do have a tradition of selective breeding. And so what can we learn from how our ancestors applied their values to the technology and the way that they applied it hundreds of years ago? And that’s an important question to ask because those are still relevant values that we live by.
Marnie Chesterton 40:15
As well as helping to generate better solutions for problems like Varroa mite, the project has also helped to foster relationships between scientists and Māori communities.
Ocean Mercier 41:29
By meeting on a common topic and common ground and a common issue for us both, it allows us to kind of negotiate a space of productivity that strengthens partnerships for further collaborations down the track. Because one of the issues that we face as Māori is quite a poor representation still of Māori within the technical and physical sciences.
Marnie Chesterton 41:39
But for Ocean, while traditional knowledge has the potential to be of huge value to science and to all of us, states have their own responsibilities towards Indigenous people too.
Ocean Mercier 42:00
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it states that Indigenous peoples maintain control of their knowledges and sciences and that states recognize and protect the exercise of those rights by Indigenous people. And Indigenous knowledges, undoubtedly, will play a huge role in returning our planet back to a state of good equilibrium and proper health. But we need to make sure that the holders of that knowledge are protected, that their rights around their knowledge are protected, and that they maintain sovereignty over those.
Marnie Chesterton 42:07
That’s it for this episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues. You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online at council.science/podcast.
In our next and final episode, we’ll be looking at trust in science. What can researchers, publishers and institutions do to combat fraud? And how can we promote public understanding of science?