Should I hold a press conference?

CATEGORIES: Ethics Cases

Scientists are being encouraged to share their enthusiasm about science with the general public, engaging them with scientific results relevant to their lives. But when scientists try to do so, they may find that enthusiasm, engagement and relevance look like hype to their colleagues. This case asks students to serve as advisors to a young scientist who has been invited by her funding agency to participate in a press conference on her recent, startling results. It uses the "Arsenate Bacteria" press conference of 2010 as a touchstone of how a press conference can spark negative reactions in the scientific community. The case raises questions including:

  • Are scientists responsible for communicating their results to the broader public?–for what reasons?
  • How can relevance to the audience and excitement about results be balanced with technical scientific accuracy?
  • Do younger and female scientists face special challenges when communicating with the public, and if so, what (if anything) should they do to adapt?

Note: The discussion version of the case invites students to watch the 2010 press conference and consider reasons for the negative responses. Discussion option (1) presents the possible reasons directly; discussion option (2) documents the reasons in quotations from opinion leaders in the original case.

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