Adam Levy: 00:03
Hello, I’m Adam Levy and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This episode: the freedom and safety of LGBTQIA+ researchers.
Across the world, inside and outside of academia, people face threats due to their identity and orientation.
Whether through discrimination from researchers or through legal restrictions, this affects both scientists and science which fits under the LGBTQIA+ rainbow, LGBTQIA+ standing for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, or otherwise part of the community.
In this episode, we’ll speak with researchers about the challenges they’ve faced because of their identities. In other words, how colleagues and collaborators have reacted to those identities. We also discuss how research itself can come under assault because of the questions it addresses.
And at the end, we’ve got a follow up sponsored slot from the International Science Council (the ISC), about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility, and safety in science.
In our second episode, looking at scientific integrity, we spoke with Jacob Carter, Research Director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States. Jacob is a gay scientist, and there were moments where he was made to feel excluded because of his sexuality.
Jacob Carter: 01:43
There was a time when I was doing my PhD. And there was a Christmas party that a professor was having at their house.
And at the time, I was dating a guy who I was engaged to get married to. And the professor that was hosting this event had children, and actually pulled aside some other graduate students and expressed to them that they were very worried about me showing up with my partner because they would not know how to explain that to their kids.
I ended up ultimately not going to this party. It made it a very uncomfortable situation for me and my partner.
Adam Levy: 02:37
While experiences like these strengthened Jacob’s resolve to build his career, for many, such exclusion can ultimately mean exiting academia entirely.
Jacob Carter: 02:48
From, you know, the research that has been done, the small amount of data that has been collected, these sorts of things do ultimately lead to more LGBTQIA+ people dropping out of STEM careers because of harassment, bullying they may face, or the sort of subtle, discriminatory actions that people you know, take, that really affect LGBTQIA+ people.
Adam Levy: 03:17
But there’s still a huge amount we simply don’t know about the lives and careers of LGBTQIA+ researchers in countries around the world.
For example, in the United States, the National Science Foundation doesn’t currently collect information on sexual orientation in their exit survey for graduate students.
Without this data, it’s hard to know just what representation looks like, and what barriers LGBTQIA+ researchers are coming up against.
Today, though, I wanted to capture a couple of snapshots, understanding what being LGBTQIA+ in research means to particular individuals.
First up is Gabi Fleury, who is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison in the United States. Gabi is a livestock carnivore practitioner in Sub Saharan Africa.
Gabi Fleury: 04:12
So basically I try to prevent carnivores from eating livestock. I work closely with farmers to try to prevent farmers from shooting carnivores.
Adam Levy: 04:22
Gabi may be based in the United States, but they travel for field work. And I was keen to find out how they’re treated because of their identity, both in the US and overseas.
Gabi Fleury: 04:34
I identify personally as non-binary, which is a huge umbrella term, under, under the kind of LGBTQIA+ identity banner.
And essentially, it’s any identity that falls outside of the identity of a man or a woman. So it can mean pretty much anything. And for me, that tends to, I feel a bit more androgynous. I’m also bisexual. So I think having, being in that community, and especially working internationally can be particularly challenging, but even even domestically, it very much depends on the culture of the institution.
So some of the places I’ve worked have been very open, and then some have been a little bit unsure about it, or not quite understanding, and then maybe asking potentially, you know, inappropriate questions that they don’t know are inappropriate, just in an effort to understand.
So I’m also a Black researcher. So there’s intersectional identities, right? It’s not just being LGBTQIA. You also have class and race and nationality, and all these other things. And as you work, internationally, all those things come into play as well. So it becomes quite complicated.
Adam Levy: 05:40
You mentioned that it’s not always been the most plain sailing domestically. Have, have there been instances where you’ve been made to feel othered by other researchers or, or even feel less than safe in institutions?
Gabi Fleury: 05:55
Now, within the States, I think it’s more of a question of people being curious than anything and expecting people to educate them, which is, is a little difficult, because you know, I’m not a gender studies major. I’m just a person with an identity, right?
Bringing in, you know, diversity, and inclusion efforts into organizations can be really helpful in that, because then we can all have these conversations, without the burden kind of falling on one person. I’m just representative of myself.
So I think that my experience may be very different from someone else’s experience. So I think it’s, it’s more of a question of people like being being curious, or maybe not respecting pronouns, sometimes, I think can be quite challenging.
They’re not preferred pronouns, theory are people’s pronouns. So just respecting that and just admitting when you you make a hiccup and moving on from there.
Adam Levy: 06:43
Within the United States, there has been increased political debate about LGBTQIA+ identities. Has this been felt by you, within American institutions, this shift to very publicly discussing these identities?
Gabi Fleury: 06:59
Definitely. With the caveat that I haven’t been in the workforce all that long. So I wasn’t able to experience what things were like, for example, like a decade ago, where it was very, very different from my colleagues that I’ve chatted with. But I have even in the last couple years seen more openness about those discussions, especially as Gen Z has entered the workforce, about talking about these things, and about discrimination being more heavily focused on as a bad thing. But I’ve been quite lucky to, to at least see an effort towards more inclusion,
Adam Levy: 07:33
As an LGBTQIA+ researcher, who is also Black, can you explain how these aspects of your identity, of your person, intersect and do affect your life as a researcher?
Gabi Fleury: 07:47
I work internationally, just to clarify. I work mostly in Sub Saharan Africa. So a lot of the time I’m working with people, such as farmers who actively don’t like carnivores.
So it’s allowed me to kind of have a very open perspective about how to interact with a variety of different people, how to use diplomacy to try to connect people, and find those common grounds, and trying to look at things from completely different perspectives that might not be my own.
In my case, it’s been helpful. It is both a challenge and a privilege to be able to have such a kaleidoscope of identities and to use that in my work.
Adam Levy: 08:25
So as someone who travels far beyond your institution for your fieldwork, can you explain whether this ever poses any practical or safety issues for you?
Gabi Fleury: 08:37
Yeah, so there are some places I just can’t work, right? Well, I probably could work, but it would definitely potentially be dangerous for me to work in those places.
I, essentially when I’m in the field, have to fly under the radar. I don’t talk about my sexuality or my identity, and I don’t use my pronouns.
I use she/her, which is a choice that I’ve made working internationally because I’ve kind of had to thread that needle of wanting to keep myself safe in the field and wanting not to telegraph my identity when it could potentially be a danger to me.
But it does come with mental health costs, of course, because you’re you’re kind of having to deny and pretend you’re not who you are, in order to work safely or effectively. I feel like how I work in the States is extremely different from how I work abroad.
Adam Levy: 09:27
Do you feel that other colleagues and maybe your advisor in your department understand those compromises that you have to make, understand the places you can’t go, and, and the challenges you have in the places that you do go to?
Gabi Fleury: 09:39
I think intellectually I t.hink it’s hard if that’s not their lived experience. I know that my department’s very supportive and my advisor is extremely supportive and fantastic. And that’s why that’s why I decided to go to the university I go to, but unless someone goes through that experience, it’s hard to explain it.
And that’s one of the reasons why I do a lot of mentorship. So especially if you’re also, you know, a person of colour, I think it’s, it’s really important to have someone who can be that support system for you.
Adam Levy: 10:06
What do you think can be done to improve the safety and the freedom of LGBTQIA+ researchers, as well as take into account that that might just be one part of their personhood, one part of their identity?
Gabi Flery: 10:20
Field safety’s a major one, or just having these conversations. Because a lot of the time we’re working in very remote areas, very isolated areas. And these conversations often aren’t had, right like, what do you do if you find yourself in an unsafe situation where you go, because a lot of the people who are in positions of power, in my field specifically don’t share any of my marginalizations, they don’t even have to think about it. I remember my mom being shocked when I didn’t get she’s like, “Do you get self defense training?”
And I’m like, “No.” You know, so it’s not just about research, but about, you know, whether your resources if something were to go wrong, and as a big part of the conversation that I think needs to be built into the universities. Because there’s countries you can go to that it’s illegal, like your identity may be illegal, there could be prison consequences for, you know, being yourself, essentially. So I do think that’s something to be honest about.
Adam Levy: 11:15
We’ve discussed any challenges that you’ve had, because you fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, but has been a Black researcher presented any problems from other researchers owing to racism?
Gabi Fleury: 11:30
That’s kind of a complicated answer. So yes, I think it’s less external, in the States, at least, at least in my case, where people won’t necessarily be directly racist towards me. It’s more in terms of like, I think microaggressions.
Or I might be considered, I might be taken less seriously. Or I might be considered more aggressive than a white woman would be.
So yeah, I definitely think that it’s harder, especially since conservation is so white-dominated, and still so male-dominated in kind of the upper echelons of the field.
So when I was a kid, no, all my heroes were, they were white men. They were Steve Irwin, and the Craft Brothers and David Attenborough, you know, like they were my conservation heroes, or Jane Goodall, the only woman among them that I knew of.
The representation is so important for people who are kind of coming up. I’ve been engaged in a program called Skype for Scientists, where you can speak to the schools, and I’ve been trying to do as much media as I can to, to show kids that, you know, you can be Black and be a conservationist. You can be LGBT and be a conservationist.
And although there are challenges, I don’t necessarily like to focus on the challenges, because they’re there. But I think it’s also important to, to show people that you can succeed, and that there is a place for them in the field.
Adam Levy: 13:01
What would you hope to see change in the future, regarding how we understand what it means to be LGBTQIA+ in research?
Gabi Fleury: 13:11
You know, we’re academics. So I think publishing on these things, and getting data about some of the challenges that people face and some of the potential ways to overcome it, I think is really important.
That’s what we do. We collect data, and we analyze data, and we see patterns, and then we can respond appropriately to those things.
And I think, rather than kind of seeing it as like an HR thing, you know, that is removed from science. That’s part of our science.
Adam Levy: 13:36
That was Gabi Fleury. And this question of data around the LGBTQIA+ researchers comes up again and again. As Gabi mentioned, fieldwork can present particular challenges. And a pair of US geologists set out to gather data on the challenges LGBTQIA plus researchers face out in the field.
I called up Alison Olcott, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas in the United States, who was one of the researchers behind the survey.
Alison Olcott: 14:09
Geology, paleontology is so rooted in fieldwork, this sort of Indiana Jones idea of you know, you go out with your bullwhip and your khaki shorts, and you stride around and you pick up rocks and find bones.
And I think a lot of the underlying safety factors just aren’t considered by everyone who’s organizing a field trip.
Adam Levy: 14:27
For researchers who aren’t LGBTQ+, or maybe researchers who are but don’t conduct fieldwork, could could you explain why this can pose difficulties?
Alison Olcott: 14:39
There can be difficulties faced on many different levels by LGBTQ researchers. One the sort of biggest level is in many places, LGBTQ identities are criminalized or just dangerous to have.
So you could send your students out, you could take a field trip, you could send an expedition to a place where the very existence of some of the people on the field trip is illegal, which is a huge danger for those people.
But at a more basic day-to-day level, gender actually ends up underlying so much of what we do in the field from, you know, a pit stop, where you say, “Boys go to this side of the road to go the bathroom, girls go to this side.”
Or how you make students have room together on a field trip or in a field camp. You know, boys go in this cabin, girls go in this cabin, gender underlies so much of the day to day functioning of a field trip.
Adam Levy: 15:29
You and collaborators actually conducted a survey to investigate these issues and how they affect geologists. How do these impacts actually affect researchers at different stages of their careers?
Alison Olcott: 15:43
One of the biggest effects is that at early stages in the career, there’s just less control over where you’re going in the field.
We actually found when we researched the levels people had felt this effect, the biggest effects were felt at the grad school level.
We think it’s because as undergraduates students have control over what classes they take, so if there’s a trip that’s not set up well, if you don’t feel safe, if the destination doesn’t feel safe, maybe you don’t take that class.
If you’re a faculty member, if you are leading a trip, maybe you don’t take a trip to a place, you don’t feel safe, or you set up the trip with your own safety in mind.
But if you’re a graduate student, quite often you’re just being sent somewhere by your advisor. And you have very little control over whether or not you get to go, or even sometimes how that trip is set up.
And so there are power imbalances as well, within these relationships. So the same power imbalances you see across academia, also are reflected in these LGBTQ geoscientists as well.
Adam Levy: 16:44
And from this survey, just how widespread are these kinds of issues that we’re talking about?
Alison Olcott: 16:49
This was very, very widespread. A huge proportion of the people we surveyed have reported feeling unsafe in the field. And they also reported not doing research, not taking advantage of opportunities because of their feelings of safety.
So a huge proportion of scientists are going out and doing things that makes them feel unsafe. But also, just science isn’t occurring because people don’t feel safe. So in some ways, we can’t even quantify what the effects are.
Because things aren’t happening, people aren’t going to the field. People aren’t making discoveries, because they feel that their own personal safety would be too impacted.
Adam Levy: 17:27
Given just how extensive this issue is, why do you think that researchers who aren’t LGBTQ plus can overlook this so easily?
Alison Olcott: 17:36
I think it can be hard to think through all the issues other people might face. And I think also, in many ways, the geosciences is still quite traditional.
So I have come across other geoscientists who will say things to me, like, “I don’t need to worry about these issues. I just teach about rocks. And so I just need to focus on the rocks.”
So although it is changing, I think there is still this tendency among some geoscientists that just the field is the great equalizer and everyone loves the field.
And for many geoscientists going out in the field was their transformative moment that made them become a geoscientist. So it can be very hard for them to think that for other people, the field could be a source of stress and trauma.
Adam Levy: 18:19
Could you share any stories that came through from this survey, which really capture the kind of problems that LGBTQ+ geologists might actually face out in the field?
Alison Olcott: 18:31
There were the big stories, you know, about “I was sent to a place where I felt unsafe.”
But the ones that really struck me were these these day-to-day stories, somebody reached out and told us that when he was in the camp, he was just tortured the whole time, because he was an out gay man. And he was put in the boys’ cabin. And just he felt very uncomfortable.
His cabin mates were very mean to him because of his identity, he felt very unsafe, and that he had nowhere to turn to. And so that meant he spent every night at field camp stressed and upset. Just because of where he was assigned to sleep.
People talked about troubles at sea, where you know, you’re you’re out in the field, stuck on a boat with people where they were being abused for their identity, because they had no bathroom to go to that matched their gender identity.
So it just it can be a very unsettling experience for people. These very small details, you know, that are so important. Where do I sleep? Where do I go to the bathroom? That can be so fraught in some of these situations.
Adam Levy: 19:35
What can or perhaps should other academics and academic institutions do to address these issues?
Alison Olcott: 19:42
No one should ever be punished because they can’t go on a field trip. I think universities need to have alternative pathways to do field trips if they’re required for students. There are lots of reasons not just for identity, there can be disabilities, there can be family issues. So I think universities need to give students options.
But I also think as a PI, whenever you organize a field trip, there is a standard set of safety information you gather. You know, where are we going, what are the hazards, what do I need to warn my students about?
And we advocate that these LGBTQ issues need to be part of that standard safety practice for all trips, you know, gather information about what it will be like where the field trip is going.
Figure out things like, where are you stopping to go to the restroom? How are you organizing sleeping arrangements? And then just presenting that information to students the same way you present any other safety information to really make it just a standard part of field trip preparation.
Adam Levy: 20:41
You discuss the findings of this survey in an article Eos magazine titled “The challenges of fieldwork for LGBTQ+ geoscientists.” Did this receive much of a response?
Alison Olcott: 20:55
It did. It was really heartening the response that people had to this article. But what we found was that people really have embraced the study. A lot of schools, a lot of institutions have started changing their policies around fieldwork in reaction to this work.
It’s been really nice to see the community recognize that this is an issue, and watch institutions try to plan, and try to help students of all identities feel more comfortable in the field, which I think can only help make the geosciences richer.
Adam Levy: 21:26
Alison Olcott there. So far this episode, we’ve been focusing on LGBTQIA+ researchers who are based in the United States, and the potential risks of travel.
But some researchers face serious threats to their lives and safety in their countries of origin. And in many parts of the world. LGBTQIA+ orientations and identities are not only persecuted, but criminalized.
In the fourth episode in this series, I spoke with Stephen Wordsworth, about the work his organization, the Council For At Risk Academics, carries out to protect academics who are under threat. He also explained to me that as well as, for example, helping those fleeing conflict, they have also worked with LGBTQIA+ researchers.
Stephen Wordsworth: 22:20
It simply reflects the prejudices in their own countries, whichever countries those are, where there are a number of countries across Africa and Asia, where being gay is simply unacceptable in the view of local people there, including local extremists.
And so they need help urgently to get away. So we define academic broadly, we define risk broadly. But if somebody who meets those criteria is at risk of violence, death, or just not being able to work, because they’re ostracized, excluded, then we will help them.
Adam Levy: 22:59
But threats to safety can come for many reasons and in many forms, and as we learned in last week’s episode where we spoke about the harassment climate scientists face, academics studying controversial politicized topics, can find themselves on the receiving end of a deluge of hatred.
And this is the case for several researchers who investigate issues connected to transgender people, people whose gender does not match up with the gender that they were assigned at birth.
In the last years there has been an increasing public and political focus on transgender people. I wanted to speak with someone who researches questions around transgender wellbeing and rights. Some of the people I contacted were scared of the threats and backlash they might receive through speaking publicly. But Florence Ashley, a researcher at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Law, in Canada, gave me a call.
Florence Ashley: 24:00
I do quite a lot of different types of work across law, bioethics, and the health and social sciences, all around transgender issues. Quite a large chunk of my work is around access to gender affirming care for minors.
Adam Levy: 24:23
Given how much of the political debate around transgender people focuses on transgender young people, Florence has found themselves at the centre of this controversy. When I called Florence up, I asked them what it was like doing this work when they first got started in their career.
Florence Ashley: 24:42
So I started doing this work more in 2015-2016.
And back then the public conversation was so much less hostile than it is now. In many ways things were so much better back then in terms of public conversation, which isn’t to say, we didn’t get a lot of pushback.
Whenever I would I write opinion articles in the media or would go on TV or go on radio, the comments were, you know, full of people calling me mentally ill, calling trans people mentally ill, saying we should not support that. But it didn’t really gained the same sort of public prominence, it was largely reserved for the common sections. But this has really evolved since then,
Adam Levy: 25:30
Can you give people a sense of the kind of reactions, either from inside or from outside academia, that you’ve had to the work that you’re doing?
Florence Ashley: 25:39
I’ve had right-wing media write articles about my work, essentially calling it horrendous. I’ve, of course, like many other people, have received death threats, mostly not credible ones. But I know a lot of people who have received very credible ones, unfortunately.
I’ve had people that are in my field, who are professors, senior professors, say that they would try to end my career and prevent me from having a career.
I’ve had people, you know, defame me and call me a groomer for the work that I do, including by academic peers.
And then, of course, I have to deal with the things that aren’t directed at me, but are directed at people like me, and people who do the work that I do, which is seeing people call for the eradication of quote unquote, transgenderism.
Or call for even, you know, hanging and public hangings of those who offer gender-affirming care to minor or who support it. And, you know, given how much of my work is around increasing access to gender-affirming care, this is something that I feel quite targeted by,
Adam Levy: 27:02
And how does that actually affect your ability and your desire to carry out this work?
Florence Ashley: 27:08
It makes doing this kind of work very difficult in many ways, personally, because of who I am as a person, despite fuels my work, the anger fuels, my work, and so I want to do this work even more.
But I know so many people who just can’t go on, and I often have a lot of days where I really struggle to to get up and do the work and have the motivation. 1, because it feels like it’s helpless and endless. But also because there is a sense of like, nobody is going to support me.
And through that, well, that, you know, worsens depression, worsens anxiety, and just makes it really difficult to do that work.
And there is also the reality of the fact that I’ve grown quite numb emotionally to a lot of the bad things that happen in my life through not only the hatred that I get, but also the number of people around me who have died, (usually to suicide), because of all that hatred in society and that numbness is really not good.
You know, after that’s my few days, my therapist would say, “Yeah, that’s, that’s not a healthy thing.”
But it’s, I guess, what my brain has had to do to just keep me keep an eye on.
Adam Levy: 28:38
To what extent then has this reaction to your work fed into your your personal life, your personal well being because of course, we all care about our work, but these are questions that also affect you directly as a trans person?
Florence Ashley: 28:53
Absolutely. It has an immense impact on my personal life. In fact, it has simply made it difficult for me to have a sort of like healthy personal life, because I’m always dealing with these anxieties.
And I’m always dealing with the sense that if I am not personally doing something to fight against this wave of hatred, then that gets hashed out in in costs of lives.
Any help that I can give, you know, might help turn the tides when added to the work of others. And so there is unfortunately a sense oftentimes, if I don’t do this, if I don’t fight back with all the privilege that I have, then I’m failing my communities.
But then the problem with that is it means that my own personal wellbeing takes a backseat and I always have to be sort of like flirting with depression, flirting with burnout, and and really not having the ability to take care of myself in a way that I should be able to take care of myself.
And in a way that most researchers are able to do once they leave the lab, leave the office and go back home.
Adam Levy: 30:18
What if anything, do you feel other academics and academic institutions should be doing to support researchers whose work becomes so actively politicized?
Florence Ashley: 30:31
In terms of academics, please show up for your colleagues, please show up for people who are not, you know, immediate colleagues, but who are in sufficient proximity to you that you can give them emotional and material support.
We need people to speak out about it, to be very public in their support of their trans colleagues, and of their colleagues who work in trans issues.
And then at the institutional level, we need institutions to stand behind their trans faculty and students. We need them to have clear policies around safety around, how to respond to harassment campaigns and death threats.
We need them to have adequate mental health support. A lot of institutions will represent their faculty if they are targeted by legal threats, most notably in life defamation, which are often a way of shutting up scholars, but one, they need to be sure that they are really robust in these protections. And then also they will need to extend them to their students.
Adam Levy: 31:44
How typical do you think are the experiences that you’ve had compared to other people researching in this area, potentially, in in different countries?
Florence Ashley: 31:53
I would say I’m actually on the better end of things. While I’m very involved, online, and Canada is far from free from hatred, the intensity of that hatred is far, far worse in many other places. I’m thinking, notably, the UK, I’m thinking the US, among other places.
And, you know, in many ways, I’ve had it easy, I haven’t had people picketing my office. I have colleagues who want to participate in public conversations and have to back out of them because of the level of threat that they are personally experiencing.
And the level of death threats that are credible to because, you know, it’s it’s one thing to receive death threats as I do. And I mean, I’m always shocked by the boldness of people literally signing their names onto their death threats.
But it’s quite another one when you when they do that. And then it so happens that the death threat is, you know, left at your workplace without a postage stamp, meaning that they’ve it’s been personally delivered.
And I know so many people who have experienced that, and who experience that on a daily or weekly basis.
So my experiences are, in a way representative of the fact that there is so much harassment and evil going on towards trans scholars and scholars who work on on trans health.
But at the same time, a lot of people have it. So much, so much worse.
Adam Levy: 33:35
That was Florence Ashley. And harassment is unfortunately all too common for researchers, whether because they’re investigating LGBTQIA+ questions, or because they are LGBTQIA+ themselves.
And being targeted by harassment in any shape can have serious impacts on scientists, careers, and their lives.
We’ll be discussing harassment in the workplace in our next episode, the last in this special series. Now it’s time for our sponsored slot from the International Science Council, (the ISC) about how it’s exploring freedom, responsibility and safety in science. Thanks for listening. I’m Adam Levy.
Soumya Swaminathan 34:32
Trust is something that is built over a long period of time. It’s a two-way process. It involves investment and therefore it’s important to build on that.
Elisabeth Bik 34:42
So we can easily create photos of cells or tissues that look very realistic and that technology can be used to create all kinds of fake news and fake science.
Marnie Chesterton 34:53
Hello and welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council on freedom and responsibility in science. I’m Marnie Chesterton, and in this final episode, we’re looking at trust. How can we combat malpractice and misconduct in research? And how do we promote trust in scientists and the work they do?
So many of the important decisions we make in society are based on scientific evidence. From how we treat diseases or educate our children to the interventions we make to protect the planet. It’s vital that science is credible and reliable, and yet despite the advances we have made this century, scientific fraud is on the rise.
Elisabeth Bik 35:41
There’s obviously several kinds of misconduct you could see in a paper, but the most visible ones are photos. Images, photos of plants, or mice, or cells, or tissues or blots, things like that.
Marnie Chesterton 35:54
This is Elisabeth Bik. A microbiologist by training, she now specializes in the detection of fake images in scientific papers.
Elisabeth Bik 36:03
Things like photoshopping or using the same image twice to represent two different experiments. You might see statistical errors. You might see impossible numbers or numbers that look very similar, either between tables or across papers, suggesting that the data has been made up. And then there’s the misconduct you cannot see just because the person is smart and is hiding it, and you could only catch it when you’re sitting next to that person doing the misconduct. If they use a different antibody or a different cell line, or if they just dilute their samples a little bit, you can make your results look exactly the way you want it without doing that experiment.
Marnie Chesterton 36:46
Catching scientific misconduct isn’t always possible, but Elisabeth has tried to get a sense of the scale of the problem when it comes to images.
Elisabeth Bik 36:54
I scanned 20,000 papers and I found that 4% of those 800 papers had signs of image duplications, and we estimated about half of those had been done deliberately. So that would mean that 2% of the papers that I scanned had signs of misconduct. Now, I think the real percentage of misconduct has to be higher, maybe the 4 or 10% range, and I do think it’s getting worse. You see that there are paper mills, and those are companies that make fake papers and sell the authorship positions to those authors who need those papers. But it’s hard to catch them, so journals luckily are getting more aware of this problem and are screening their incoming manuscripts better to catch these fake papers.
Marnie Chesterton 37:43
Publication fraud like this is damaging in all kinds of ways, and in the long run ends up hurting all of us.
Elisabeth Bik 37:51
For example, with these paper mills that we have discovered, it’s damaging the people who are honest scientists who are doing really good science. But it’s also damaging for science because we already have seen in the past couple of years during the COVID pandemic that there is a group of people who have a huge distrust in science. And I think the stories about misconducting science could actually help those people be more convinced that science is all fake and we cannot trust scientists any more.
Marnie Chesterton 38:19
So what can we do about this growing problem? Well, according to Elisabeth, it’s going to take action on multiple fronts.
Elisabeth Bik 38:27
It takes a village. It takes not just the scientists themselves, but the institutions that they work at, the scientific publishers, the readers, and maybe even a government to make sure that science is done properly. So the papers that I found, I reported all of those to the publishers, and I found that only one third of those papers were corrected after waiting five years. I would love to see that there were some consequences for people who are caught photoshopping in science. I feel that that paper should be retracted and those people after an investigation should be punished, maybe lose their job. And I think we need to move towards a reproducibility model of scientific publishing. We tend to focus too much on novel science, which is great, but I think we’re moving too fast. We need to take a step back, reproduce more experiments, and then give the people who are able to reproduce experiments recognition for that.
Marnie Chesterton 39:25
Researchers, institutions and governments all have a role to play in ensuring that science is done responsibly. But trustworthiness isn’t the same as trust. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that not everyone was willing to put their faith in experts, and we saw the life-threatening consequences of inaccurate information. So whose responsibility is it to build public trust in science?
Soumya Swaminathan 39:52
I would start with school teachers and parents who need to inculcate in children the spirit of scientific inquiry, inquisitiveness, curiosity, the need to question and, to, as they grow, to be able to distinguish between credible sources of information and what could be perhaps false information.
Marnie Chesterton 40:17
This is Soumya Swaminathan, former Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization and currently the chairperson of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, South India.
Soumya Swaminathan 40:29
But of course, I think scientists also have a responsibility. And I think fundamental understanding of science is that it evolves constantly, that it’s a community, really, not individuals that ultimately come up with solutions to problems. Sometimes there is a proof that actually overturns what was believed earlier. I think we also have as scientists and, as well as, as public health experts, a duty to communicate what we understand in language that’s simple, that’s easy to understand, that’s not talking down to people but engaging them in a conversation, treating them as equals, and trying to address the myths and misconceptions that we might find around us.
Marnie Chesterton 41:19
But unfortunately, we’ve all seen how these days communicating research findings or debunking myths online comes with its own challenges.
Soumya Swaminathan 41:28
There’s a lot of online abuse and hate, and I think particularly for women, sometimes, you know, this can be very ugly as well, and it can get very personal. There needs to be norms of behaviour on what you can and cannot say on social media and what kind of language, you know, you can and cannot use. And I would like to see these rules being put in place and enforced. That’s the only way to have constructive and open debate. Because a lot of people were thrust into social media at the time of the pandemic, when they were desperate for knowledge, and there was a lot of confusing information out there, what we call the infodemic. So I think there’s a lot of education to be done, really, in all of these areas before we can get much more enlightened and maybe civil discourse going on some of these topics.
Marnie Chesterton 42:20
The COVID pandemic put public trust in science to the ultimate test. So what lessons can we learn? And looking to the future, are there reasons to be hopeful?
Soumya Swaminathan 42:32
What I find very encouraging is that if you ask people whom they trust, their trust in scientists and their trust in the medical profession seems to be quite high. After all, it was science that delivered for us during the pandemic. So many vaccines developed within a year of identifying a new virus and a whole lot of understanding of how this virus spreads and what the immune responses are. And again, studies have shown that in countries where there’s high trust between people and between government and people, their outcomes were generally much better. The people were much more willing to comply with government instructions than in places where there was less trust. I would say, however, that trust is not something that can be built overnight. One has to get into communities, one has to engage with them, they have to be participants in the process. Top-down measures usually are not the way to build trust.
Marnie Chesterton 43:43
That’s it for this final episode on freedom and responsibility in science from the International Science Council. The ISC has released a discussion paper on these issues titled ‘A contemporary perspective on the free and responsible practice of science in the twenty-first century’. You can find the paper and learn more about the ISC’s mission online at council.science/podcast. And in July 2023, the ISC will produce another paper through its newly established Centre for Science Futures on public engagement and trust in science. Insights from the paper will provide a robust framework to interpret, mediate and explain scientific knowledge, and provide advice, recommendations and policy options. Visit futures.council.science for more information.