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Let's get political

President Bush has done his fair share of interfering in science and the scientific process. How can you fight back?
By Alison McCook

Whenever former presidential science advisor Jack Gibbons met a new Nobel Prize winner in the White House, he offered them "my congratulations and, partially, my condolences." Scientists who have received official recognition have an "obligation" to speak publicly about science, Gibbons notes. "With that investment come responsibilities."

Trouble is, scientists aren't given any training about the nuances of language that are required whenever a subject gets political. Universities are "doing a really bad job of preparing scientists for policy roles," says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation...

1. Don't take data doctoring lying down
When scientists overseeing the science of recovery efforts for salmon were told to leave out their policy recommendation that fish-counters ignore hatchery salmon, to avoid over-inflating what's naturally present outside the hatchery, they took their report to Science. The journal published it in its entirety, only days before the National Marine Fisheries Service had to decide how to count the salmon. The NMFS followed the scientists' advice, a decision that enabled the species to remain officially endangered, says Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, who also served on the committee. "By making a clear, public statement...a really bad decision turned around."

2. Stick to the facts
When scientists aren't careful about facts and don't couch the promise of embryonic stem cells in the reality of what we know - and don't know - they give people false hope and provide fodder for opponents, who say scientists aren't to be trusted in this debate, says AAAS's Mark Frankel. But scientists also shouldn't be too cautious, says David Gollaher, President and CEO of the California Healthcare Institute in La Jolla, which advocates for the local biomedical community. When politicians appear with children born from leftover embryos from in vitro fertilization, Gollaher asks, why can't scientists introduce patients who could benefit from the research?

3. Watch your words
Use overly technical language, and the audience will miss your message. "If legislators lack even a basic vocabulary that scientists assume, it creates for a huge barrier for understanding," says Gollaher. And don't forget seemingly obvious terms?for instance, many people may believe that embryonic stem cell research involves destroying small fetuses, and explaining the difference between fetus and embryo may help people accept the research, he says.

4. Be more inclusive
Accept requests for interviews from journalists, write op-eds for your local papers, or spend time stomping for promising local politicians - this will help make science more inclusive to politicians and the public they represent. Alan Leshner, the CEO of AAAS, wrote editorials in local papers about the evolution controversy, and reports from the field suggest the articles informed voters about the debate, says Frankel.

5. Get out of the lab
Take a course or two in policy, or spend a few months in Washington, DC, such as at the National Academies - the experience will illuminate how politics works. And why not run for office yourself? The popular image of scientists - working alone in their lab - is exactly the opposite of what people think of politicians, who spend their time communicating with people of all backgrounds. "It would be wonderful if more scientists got involved in local politics," says Frankel.
© Associated Press

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