Could a simple slogan hold the key to fixing much of what ails biomedical research?

by Mark Yarborough

As a philosopher who studies ethical issues in biomedical research, I’ve been struck by how little traction the many thoughtful remedies addressing quality concerns in biomedical research have gained. The reason I have taken note of this has to do with my main scholarly interest, the role of the public’s trust in the research endeavor. In particular, I’m interested in learning how the research community best deserves that trust. Just about everybody acknowledges that trust is necessary if the research enterprise as we currently know it is to have a secure future. Francis Collins, NIH’s leader, has said that the public’s trust is “just essential” to his agency while former BMJ editor Richard Smith has gone so far as to say that science “depends wholly” on trust. A long time ago, fellow philosopher John Hardwig wrote a very insightful paper showing that you don’t have to dig too far into any scientific knowledge claim to discover that implicit within it is trust in what other scientists have claimed to be the case. In other words, scientists “know what they know” because they “trust who they trust.” If all this is true, then trust really is a big deal in research.

What stands out to me in regards to all this acknowledgement about the importance of trust to science is how little discussion one finds in the literature about research about what it is, exactly, that science is trusted to do on the one hand and how we go about ensuring that it reliably does that/those thing(s) on the other. What you find instead is a lot of curiosity, as well as empirical research, on how to enjoy the public’s trust. But I think that this focus on simply enjoying other people’s trust misses a much more important point, one made by noted trust scholar Russell Hardin. He puts it in really simple terms: if you want to enjoy trust you need to focus on deserving it. After all, trust can be misplaced, unearned, and undeserved, none of which are good for science in the long run. So, the dearth of discussion about what science is trusted to do and how we best assure that we do those things is not without consequence. How can we change this?

I’ve long thought that a good slogan could prove to be an effective catalyst for change. According to the built-in electronic dictionary on my MacBook Air, a slogan is “a short and striking or memorable phrase used in advertising.” No news there. But when you read what the dictionary says about the origin of the term, things get a whole lot more interesting: “early 16th century: from Scottish Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, from sluagh ‘army’ + gairm ‘shout’.” A slogan, it turns out, is akin to a sort of battle cry. It can “rally the troops” on the one hand and align them with a singular purpose on the other. A brief anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, is illustrative on this point. It goes like this: A government leader was visiting the space center at Cape Canaveral in the 1960s during the race to the moon. He encountered a maintenance worker there and asked him what his job was. “Why, I’m here to help put a man on the moon!” This shows the power of a slogan to generate a broad, even universal, dedication to a single shared goal, along with a collective commitment to the efforts needed to achieve it. Maybe a good slogan for the research community could spur similar commitment and dedication that could help to abate all the current concern about what is widely described as a “crisis” in science.

What battle cry or slogan might we propose? My candidate is “Science you can trust.” This slogan works at all levels of science, covering the efforts of the individual investigator, a lab, a research institution, and even at the level of professional communities and societies. If people rallied around such a slogan and truly took it to heart, then we could imagine that when someone has a visitor in their lab asking what they are doing, they could say, “Why, I’m conducting research about xyz that others can trust to” inform their research, shed light on important questions, generate insights for others, or whatever phrase is most in line with one’s type of research. Truly taking it to heart, though, brings us to the biggest challenge in deserving other people’s trust.

We need to have consensus about what it is, exactly, that science is trusted to do and what the practices are that are capable of achieving that. I’ve claimed elsewhere that among the things that science is trusted to do is, for example, to report results that others can rely upon to inform their work and to conduct research in an ethical manner but there needs to be a lot more vigorous debate about what the most important characteristics of trustworthy research are. Until there is, we can’t reach consensus about what the critical practices are that increase the likelihood that other people’s trust is truly deserved, which means we won’t really know how trust is best deserved.

Initiating this conversation and possibly achieving the consensus that could arise from it is yet another virtue of my proposed slogan since it focuses squarely on deserving trust. You may have a better candidate for the slogan. That is fine with me, so long as it is capable of getting people to “thinking globally” about deserving trust and “acting locally” through collaborative work at the level of individual labs, teams, and institutions to achieve it. Both are needed if you agree with Francis Collins that trust is “just essential” to research.

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