Cherish your scientists

Public policy hardly ever gets off the ground on its own authority. There is a trend in which the government increasingly relies on science to give legitimacy to its actions. The coronavirus pandemic seems to have accelerated this development: Dutch government policy relies almost entirely on the scientists of its Outbreak Management Team. Similarly, the newly appointed President of the United States, Joe Biden, does not fail to emphasise that trust in science and scientists is central to his administration.

As an employee of a university, course I find it fantastic if a great deal of value is attached to scientific knowledge. Despite all the "fake news", studies by the Rathenau Institute show year after year that society's trust in science is high, especially compared to other (public) institutions, and will remain so. With that trust comes responsibility. Scientists have a responsibility not only to society, but to science itself as well.

Especially in the (opinionated parts of the) media, scientists appear with great regularity and one may wonder whether what they have to say is actually based on their scientific expertise. Like a microbiologist who propagates that the national elections should be postponed. Or a professor of Safety who, in view of the average age of those who die from the coronavirus, concludes that the government is not making a proper cost-benefit analysis when taking measures against the pandemic.

These academics take on a role that is broader than their own expertise allows. Their views have no added value compared to experts from other disciplines who claim the opposite. It is important to watch out for scientists who defend views in an academic capacity that go beyond their own expertise, for the authority of science is quickly undermined and one's own reputation is put at risk. The warning in norm 53 of the Dutch code of conduct for scientific integrity applies here: "Be honest in public communication and clear about the limitations of (...) your own expertise”.

If scientists live up to this norm, they are of enormous importance to society and to decision-making in politics and public administration. This applies in particular to those scientists who feed public debates with facts and scientific probabilities in understandable language. For this they cannot be praised enough. Unfortunately, these colleagues are still too often met with pity and even disdain in their own circles, as if making scientific knowledge available through the media was an inferior activity. It is not!

Openness to and interaction with society are crucial for the development and potential of science. This also includes acting in non-scientific forums, including the media. The Open Science movement has made this even more visible, and UU's recently presented vision on Recognition and Awards rightly makes it clear that making scientific knowledge accessible by means other than publications in high ranked journals, can also contribute to building a good academic career.

Contrary to popular belief, acting in the media is not easy for most scientists. It often requires a great deal of preparation time: the translation of professional jargon into language that is understandable to those outside of the academic world is strenuous. They also must take "follow-up preparation time" into account, in the sense of correcting written texts and explaining what was really meant during (oral) interviews.

The latter is partly due to the way social media works, where there is hardly any room for nuance and there are quite a few people actively seeking to undermine the authority of science because it presents things in a way that does not correspond to the reality as they see it. Often, they also attack the character of the scientist. Not infrequently, scientists are exposed to "online vitriol", as Ineke Sluiter, President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), put it in her impressive Leiden Diesrede (Foundation Day Speech) 2021. Read that speech! Many scientists are confronted with such online misconduct, and Sluiter emphasises that women are especially targeted by it. Perhaps it is indeed time for the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) to start an "online social safety" taskforce, as she suggests.

Ultimately, I think that we scientists should share more knowledge and experiences with each other. As a university, we need to equip our staff better and offer them help and assistance in dealing with (social) media. In any case, it is good to know that they can already turn to the faculty and university press officers for questions and suggestions. What we all need to do is create the right environment, which means that someone who has contributed to the social debate on the basis of his or her crucial knowledge deserves a big compliment the next day and not a raised eyebrow if it did not go entirely as planned.