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Winter 2015 Issue

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Purdue Agriculture > Agricultures Magazine > When Research Becomes Controversial

Engagement Initiative

Purdue Agriculture's Issues 360 Fellows program provides educational experiences for students to help them become more skilled in engaging in issues without advocating or positioning one side against another. This is the first of three articles about the program.

When Research Becomes Controversial

Panelists: Objectivity of Researcher Must Prevail

By Keith Robinson

Panelist Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics.Wally Tyner

Scientists should report their findings in matters of social controversy with reasoned, objective analysis to help government and industry use their research in the public's best interest, say Purdue University researchers whose work often is scrutinized in a widening and strongly vocal public arena of special interests and causes.

College of Agriculture panelists discussing the topic "When Research Becomes Controversial" agreed that this sometimes puts researchers in the middle of intense public debate on issues that elicit starkly opposing views. That is especially the case when groups use the research to give credence to their entrenched positions.

Panelist Wally Tyner is OK with that. His research into the economic prospects of biofuels is closely followed both by advocacy groups supporting biofuels and by those opposed to them, and both sides have used the same research to advance their contrasting views. He sees the relationship between researcher and advocate as similar to "the division of labor."

"Our job is to produce the best, most objective analysis we can," Tyner said. "Their job is to spin it for their own interest."

River City Winery building exteriorBeth Forbes

The panel discussion was part of the College of Agriculture's Issues Engagement Initiative, which includes the pilot Issues 360 Fellows program that is helping students learn how to engage in issues of public controversy while avoiding advocating for a position. Students in the program, begun this academic year, participate in a different activity each month.

The discussion in Phendler Hall's Deans Auditorium centered on how the public perceives scientific research and what should be the role of researchers when their work becomes a subject of controversy. Panelists were Bill Muir, professor of animal sciences; Dev Niyogi, state climatologist based at Purdue; Haley Oliver, assistant professor of food science; and Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics. The discussion was moderated by Beth Forbes, head of the department of agricultural communication.

Instant Audiences for Polarized Views

People who have strong opinions on an issue, such as climate change, are not always persuaded by what the research shows, said Dev Niyogi, state climatologist. Finding common ground among differing viewpoints can often help researchers communicate their findings. (Video edited by Kelsey Getzin)

People who have strong opinions on an issue, such as climate change, are not always persuaded by what the research shows, especially when it is contrary to their engrained positions.

"Many times, people have their own idea on what they want to hear," Niyogi said. "And if you confirm it, you're liked. If you don't, then you are not with them. That becomes a problem when you have polarizing views."

Contrasting views—some drastically so—are evident on blogs and in social media, where commentary is readily expressed in volumes, sometimes blurring the line between fact and opinion. Communicating science through such forums entails risk, Muir said.

"When you have standard scientific modes of communication, you are assured quality, and that's kind of what's missing now with social media. It's hard to separate opinion," he said. "So the credibility of people who have blogs or are commenting on blogs in the social media can often speak with what appears to be great expertise and be absolutely wrong."

Blogs and social media networks offer immediate, direct access to the public to drive opinion and influence action, something that wasn't available before the Age of the Internet. Muir noted that groups with a cause to promote during the controversies of the Vietnam War era had to rely on hit-or-miss coverage of the mainstream news media of newspapers, radio and television to get their messages across to the public.

"It's easier to disseminate controversial topics now because of Twitter and all of the social media" he said, "whereas before we had to throw a protest and hope the media showed up. Now you can create your own media."

Promoting Informed Discussion

Panelist Haley Oliver, assistant professor of food science.Haley Oliver

Oliver, whose research in food safety often hits on hot-button issues involving foodborne pathogens such as Listeria in retail deli meats, uses social media to start the conversation rather than react to it. She has released research findings over a period of time rather than all at once to "avoid the shock-wave effect and to hopefully minimize the misinterpretation that can come with this data." This approach also enables industry associations to prepare responses and encourage open—but informed—discussion.

Oliver helped melon producers prepare for federal inspections of their operations following instances of Salmonella traced to cantaloupes from a southern Indiana farm in 2012. She offered guidance, based on research, on how they could ensure high standards for food safety on their farms to minimize the public's risk of exposure to foodborne pathogens.

The role of academia, including at Purdue, in food safety is unique because the university is neither a federal regulator nor a producer, Oliver noted.

"But we have a responsibility to help the public understand the situation and also to help producers respond to this challenge," she said. "It is our absolutely fundamental role to communicate the science correctly and to not do fear-driven messaging. We really can communicate something as scary as foodborne disease in a way that is more of a protective aspect."

Research Attracts Controversy

Panelist Dev Niyogi, state climatologist based at Purdue.Dev Niyogi

Staying engaged in the public discussion over research can have its frustrations—and limits. Niyogi tells his students that "You don't have to agree; just don't be disagreeable." He believes that while two people can differ on an issue, they should be able to talk about it with civility and respect.

"The moment that starts fraying away from that I think it is best to stop that communication and move on to more meaningful scientific discourse somewhere else," he said.

Researchers know that controversy comes with the job.

"It's not something you seek, but it's also not something you shy away from," Tyner said. Some funding he has received for research became available because issues needed more analysis and resolution.

"The controversial issues—the things that hit the media—are things that people are concerned about," he said. "So I think we have, in a sense, both an opportunity and a responsibility to work on those issues."

Part of that responsibility, Tyner said, is to make clear to policymakers and the public that research doesn't always produce absolute certainties. That obligation is especially crucial when the research is used to set government regulatory policy and is potentially worth millions of dollars to an organization developing a product or system based on scientific modeling in the research.

"The best model is always still a model," he said.

Maintaining Credibility Essential

Panelist Bill Muir, professor of animal sciences.Bill Muir

Panelists agreed that researchers must maintain their credibility by reporting what they find regardless of how that might affect the funding organization. Tyner receives funding from organizations that favor biofuels and also from those that oppose them.

"But they all know we're not for sale," he said. "And they all know that what they provide in funding may or may not support their position at the end of the day."

Muir said he has become hesitant to accept funding from industry for research because some companies do not want the research published if it casts them in a bad light.

"That's a biased view," said Muir, who prefers conducting research with funding from the government because of its requirement that the research—whatever it shows—be published.

Muir cited an instance in which he published research over the objection of the funding company. Now that company no longer will work with him. He says he accepts that reality rather than compromise his standards.

"You have to be prepared for that to keep your reputation, to keep your integrity," he said.

Still, industry funding of research can have benefits beyond suiting only the needs of the funding company, such as by helping in the training of budding student scientists, Niyogi said.

"We just need to find things that are mutually agreeable and mutually beneficial," he said.

Research as a Passion

Wally Tyner’s research into the economic prospects of biofuels is followed by advocacy groups supporting biofuels and by those opposed to them. The agricultural economist said both sides have used the same research to advance their contrasting views. (Video edited by Kelsey Getzin)

While scientists are taught to report their findings objectively—in a sense, to be dispassionate about them—panelists said they can be passionate about their work and the benefits it can bring to society. Muir analyzed data provided by the Food and Drug Administration and concluded that transgenic AquAdvantage salmon poses only negligible risk to the environment and human health and could boost efforts to feed a growing global population. He has been urging the FDA to decide whether the genetically engineered fish should be approved for human consumption. The matter has been pending since 1995.

"As scientists, we're obligated to point out risks when risks occur," Muir said. "But by the same token we're also obligated to point out where risks aren't. This transgenics is a necessary tool to further the food supplies of the world. It's another way of expanding what we have."

The government, however, could be unnecessarily inhibiting that effort by delaying a decision, he said. "No company right now is doing any new transgenic work until this particular legislation gets through. So I feel very passionate about seeing that this occurs because I want to see the technology used—and used in a responsible way."

Oliver has seen research result in change, such as the retail industry investing more in food safety. That is a satisfying part of her work.

"When you start to see behavior change I think is when you really get excited about what you do," she said.

Niyogi also understands why scientists are passionate about their work; they crave discovery and telling about what they found.

"Science is beautiful," Niyogi said. "Yes, we are passionate about what we see because all of us are driven by something. … I want to be absorbing about what I do, and I think that's what everyone else wants, too."

Program Helps Ag Students Understand, Mediate Issues

The Issues 360 Fellows program, part of the College of Agriculture's Issues Engagement Initiative, provides educational experiences for Purdue Agriculture students to help them become more skilled in engaging in issues through formal and informal activities.

It is not about advocating for or against an issue or in positioning one side against another, polarizing views; it is about gaining a better understanding of issues and helping to find solutions.

Fellows are expected to adhere to a set of five principles that guide attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors: They must have respect for a democratic society, for others, for science-based knowledge, for critical thinking and for themselves.

Fellows participate in a different activity each month. Among activities of the initiative this year:

  • Students are invited to attend a presentation by Terry Fleck of the Center for Food Integrity, who will be on campus March 12 to discuss the center's Consumer Trust in the Food System research survey of 2013. The presentation, which is open to the public, will be at 4 p.m. in Pfendler Hall's Deans Auditorium.
  • In February, students went on a day trip to Indianapolis to visit a dairy farm, Traders Point Creamery, Gleaners Food Bank and the Indiana offices of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Each stop focused on a different part of the farm bill and its relevance to the mission of each operation.
  • In January, students attended a workshop on the "right to farm" bill in the Indiana Legislature, with speakers representing opposing views.

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