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July 5, 2023
Communicating About Risky Research
by Kathryn M. Partin, Ph.D., Director of Research Integrity, NIH Office of Intramural Research; Agency Intramural Research Integrity Officer
Public health crises require bold and innovative solutions. Innovative solutions, however, often require risk-taking, and the public has a right to know what the risks are and whether the risks have been reasonably mitigated. How, then, can we approach the challenges of communicating effectively about the risks of research?
Certain biomedical experiments may be perceived as posing a direct threat to the individual participant or, more broadly, to the public health. Because of such fears, the public, quite naturally, may feel that federal funding should not be used for such research.
Yet banning all risky research is akin to burying one's head in the sand: It does not protect us but instead leaves us vulnerable to threats. There is an opportunity cost to being too risk-averse; that cost could be severe. For example, if we don’t study viruses in the wild, we might not have any defenses ready if one of those viruses were to infect people.
Communicating effectively about risky research begins with reliable information. This includes conveying a clear understanding of what is certain and uncertain, an awareness of how reasonable experts differ in their opinions, explanations of what controls are in place to lessen potential harm, and statements about the risks of not performing such research.
One of the greatest challenges is to describe the limits of our knowledge. Uncertainty is a part of the normal scientific process. Honest expressions of uncertainty are warranted, as are honest assessments of the risks of emerging threats to human health and safety. These are strengths, not weaknesses, of science. They enable people to weigh the risks and potential benefits of the research.
Well-qualified experts in their field can best put this uncertainty into context. The credentials of a qualified scientific expert include an advanced degree (such as a PhD or MD) from an accredited college or university. Scientific experts earn respect among their peers by virtue of their peer-reviewed publications, which can be found through NIH’s National Library of Medicine search engine, PubMed. Expert researchers generally also have an established track record of public funding for their research, found through such search engines as the NIH RePORTER, or the National Science Foundation Awards Search.
Even among expert scientists, there can be significant disagreement about important topics. Many times, the dissenting voice also comes from a subject matter expert, with good credentials, employed by an accredited university, and therefore raises issues worthy of discussion. This debate and disagreement is an important part of understanding scientific research.
In judging information from non-experts—either people who aren’t trained scientists or are, but in different research areas—one should temper how much weight to give their opinions. It is also important to include the voices of basic researchers, who are trying to understand things work, and clinical researchers, who are trying to apply knowledge to treat specific diseases. Both types of research can shed light on a topic.
Beyond justifying research that fills gaps in our knowledge, it is also important to understand what controls are in place to mitigate the risks of performing such experiments. Federal regulations are in place to provide oversight on experiments that entail risks. This includes oversight on the use of human research volunteers (through the HHS Office of Human Research Protections), the risks associated with developing new interventions and therapies through clinical trials (through the Food & Drug Administration), and the risks of working with infectious agents and pathogens (overseen by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity). Before any research of these types can begin, a committee of experts (and sometimes layperson/community representatives) review and approve the research.
The review bodies assess whether the goals of any research in these categories are important to human health, what the risks of the research are, and how researchers will mitigate the risks. They are experts at judging what types of risks are probable and which risks have the most potential for harm. Often the approval comes with conditions or stipulations about stopping research when an unpredicted result occurs, so that the advisory body can reassess the risks. Regulatory oversight is meant to provide monitoring of the risks of research by people who both value the new knowledge that may be obtained and fully appreciate the risks that accompany the attainment of that new knowledge.
Any communication about this type of research is not complete, though, until another question is addressed: What is the risk to the public of not performing this research? Researchers must plunge into the unknown because we often can’t predict which findings will be instrumental in protecting us against emerging threats.
Science and health communicators have no easy task in conveying risky research. But a clear explanation of the pros and cons—that is, the very scientific argument that was made to obtain funding for the research, made by credentialed individuals—will go a long way in building trust and understanding.