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Why Do I Need to Frame My Research for the Public?

Let's say you're a scientist. You spend a lot of time thinking of questions you'd like to answer and then devising experiments that will help you home in on an explanation. You figure that once you have some interesting results, you'd like to get the word out to the rest of the world, so people can add your discovery to their stock of knowledge of how things work.

It doesn't always work that way, however. As reported in Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and the Perils of Bad Publicity last week in the New York Times, you may find that you don't always get to drive the announcement of your research results, and current news technology, which includes blogs and email, means that a story can balloon into a frenzy almost before you've savored your first cup of coffee and read your morning cartoons.

In this case, the pairing of sensationalistic accusations on the part of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) with an article in the Sunday Times in London, which reported inaccuracies about the research, combined with the speed of information in the blogosphere to create a firestorm of outrage and confusion regarding the research of Dr. Charles Roselli at the Oregon Health and Science University. Roselli is looking for physiological factors to explain why some rams "seek sex exclusively with other rams instead of ewes."

One of the primary objections that carried this story into the media eye was the suggestion that studying gay sheep could lead to more information about gay people. This, in particular, caught my attention:

Dr. Roselli said that merely mentioning possible human implications of basic research was wildly different from intending to carry the work over to humans.

Mentioning human implications, he said, is “in the nature of the way we write our grants” and talk to reporters. Scientists who do basic research find themselves in a bind, he said, adding, “We have been forced to draw connections in a way that we can justify our research.”

This is an excellent example of the fine balance that researchers need to strike: On the one hand, we want to make our work relevant and interesting, in order to get funded and to get the word out. On the other hand, we don't want to distort the implications of our work or suggest that it has broader applications that it, in fact, does have, lest our words come back to bite us.

As a final point, another goal we have here at FairerScience.org is to increase journalists' science and research literacy to avoid the kind of mistake made by the Sunday Times. This means that journalists need a place to go in order to learn more about research rather than relying, for example, on PETA's spin on things. One of the ways that researchers can help with this is to be proactive about providing explanations and information about research in our fields.