A Dispute about Science Communication
Opposing groups of scientists have recently engaged in a heated dispute over a preliminary European Commission (EC) report on its regulatory policy for endocrine-disrupting chemicals. In addition to the scientific issues at stake, a central question has been how scientists can maintain their objectivity when informing policy makers.
Drawing from current ethical, conceptual, and empirical studies of objectivity and conflicts of interest in scientific research, we propose guiding principles for communicating scientific findings in a manner that promotes objectivity, public trust, and policy relevance.
Both conceptual and empirical studies of scientific reasoning have shown that it is unrealistic to prevent policy-relevant scientific research from being influenced by value judgments. Conceptually, the current dispute over the EC report illustrates how scientists are forced to make value judgments about appropriate standards of evidence when informing public policy. Empirical studies provide further evidence that scientists are unavoidably influenced by a variety of potentially subconscious financial, social, political, and personal interests and values.
When scientific evidence is inconclusive and major regulatory decisions are at stake, it is unrealistic to think that values can be excluded from scientific reasoning. Thus, efforts to suppress or hide interests or values may actually damage scientific objectivity and public trust, whereas a willingness to bring implicit interests and values into the open may be the best path to promoting good science and policy.