The most important side of science is its benefits on society. Let's remember that
It is increasingly conceived as an end in itself, and people see it at a distance. Instead we need to rediscover that discoveries and trust in scientific knowledge are also formed thanks to the community. A call
Very often, the increase of distrust in scientific institutions and researchers, and consequently in the entire scientific enterprise, is examined in terms of miscommunication of scientific research methods and results and increasingly poor possibility of public understanding , due to the increase in functional illiteracy and the decrease in the quality of universal school education.
Here I would like to try to argue a different position, a position that I believe should be the starting point for an awareness on the part of my fellow researchers or, if you prefer, of the scientific community as a whole.
Certainly not as an alternative, but in seeking the roots of public distrust in science starting from communication and training deficits, I would like here draw attention to the efforts that the scientific communityparticularly through its own institutions, should do to increase its own credibility and reliability by looking at the ethical dimension and the wide-ranging impact that research can have on society as a whole.
After many years and efforts, including by yours truly, researchers are now rightly concerned about the rise of science fraud and its causes, and a variety of actions have been taken to promote research integrity, transparency, and availability some data; a titanic effort, the success of which is certainly crucial for the credibility and epistemic validity of scientific knowledge, but which is hampered by the current market of scientific publication and the connected bibliometric evaluation system.
However, no one yet seems sufficiently concerned with a very simple fact: public trust and favor require not only technical competence and integrity, but also clear evidence of the benefit that the scientific enterprise, at every stage but especially and when it is close to being applied, it can have an impact on society as a whole and also on those most closely involved, such as research participants, patients, partner institutions and so on.
The clear identification of this benefit, when required, is now restricted to a few paragraphs in applications for funding for funds such as the European ones; on the other hand, it is not communicated to the public except in retrospect, in an emphatic and often stereotyped form, in the form of newspaper headlines whose prototype is the ever-present "closer to the cure for cancer X".
If I look at my sector, in order to speak of what I know best, I can say that for too long people have been treated as anonymous objects of research, rather than co-interested subjects and indispensable collaborators for the advancement of knowledge. Furthermore, too often the commercialization and privatization of knowledge is promoted in a way that cannot fail to arouse suspicionjustified or not, whether in reality it contravenes the public good and directs public effort to the advantage of private interests.
But above all – this is the point that I consider most critical – the epistemic objective of the research is prioritized, subsequently delegating, and only when "bureaucratically" forced, its justification to ethicists or human science experts (when it goes well, that is, when the religious are not involved). If we think about what is happening in the application domains of artificial intelligence, in those concerning the control of brain functions through tools such as (but not only) optogenetics, in the generation of organoids capable of computing and in the future of expressing higher cognitive functions and in a thousand other sectors, in the research aimed at correcting the defective DNA of human beings, we observe the same, bleak, panorama everywhere: everyone is well aware of the ethical and practical risks of what is being done, but the true reflection in-depth analysis of the possible consequences is devolved to different people and takes place at different times with respect to who is involved and when it operates in the first instance.
How the public will benefit from what happens in Google's labs, in collaboration with public universities? Where could artificial biointelligence research lead? How much is it possible today to read and control the activity of a brain, perhaps remotely, and what are the obtainable benefits?
It is not so important that the answers given by the scientists end up in European Union questionnaires or similar bureaucratic pits, as the fact that these kinds of questions become an integral part of the creative thinking of the researchers, as they formulate their design ideas on future research.
Equity, justice, the public good should be themes that are well present in the minds of at least those researchers who are already concerned about the integrity of scientific research and good practices today; in other words, it is not only the ethics of research that must be kept in mind, together with the responsibilities towards other researchers, but, as a whole, the responsibility towards society as a whole.
Here: I believe that if the public could share this sense of sharing and common belonging to scientific development, perhaps, net of obvious deviations, bad apples, corruptions, a more general sense trust in scientific research as a collective enterprise of the whole of societyand not only of researchers, could be recovered.