Science is critical to Australia’s future… And so is the way we discuss it

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This feature by Dr Cathy Foley was originally published in IMPACT Magazine of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering, Number 216 | March 2024.

As a physicist, doing research is very straightforward. Working in superconducting electronics, I made devices, measured lots of properties and developed the physics theory to explain what I saw. So it was an eye-opener to work with a team considering the impact of nanoparticles in sunscreen, where the way the research is performed is very different. 

The team was working in what was a contested research field, so it was crucial to get every part of the research design and methodology right. It involved all the challenging variables of a life science project: mouse models, ethics approvals and experimental design — including choosing the correct statistical approach and correct sample sizes. It was complex work and with so many variables it was easy for things to go wrong but we were absolutely transparent in communicating how we conducted the research, the results we realised, and the application, as well as the limitations, of our findings.

When scientific research is publicly contested, it is easy for the work of researchers and their reputations to be impugned by those unfamiliar with the scientific process, as well as those who like to cherrypick research that reinforces their opinions or supports their own interests. 

Science is a critical input to evidence-based policy making, so when the integrity of research and researchers is questioned unfairly it rankles. Uninformed commentary bothers me; deliberate misrepresentation and obfuscation of science is repugnant. They undermine science, dampen innovation, and slow the development of solutions to humanity’s most pressing challenges.

As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I have seen the dichotomy at play when it comes to how science and scientists are regarded in Australia. On the one hand, science is one of the few highly regarded professions in our society and the work of exceptional scientists is rightly recognised and celebrated. On the other hand, exceptional scientists can also be subjected to personal attacks and find themselves at the centre of divisive debates dominated by opinion, not fact.

There has been a lot of talk about the need for a research integrity body in Australia. From the evidence I’ve seen, I think Australian science and research are overwhelmingly robust and of high integrity. I’m yet to be convinced of the need for such a body, but if the evidence is there I’m happy to stand corrected. My main concern is that it is taking oxygen from what I see as the real issue — and our most pressing need — which is to improve the quality of Australian research.

We need to ask ourselves: ‘How can we improve research quality so our work can always be trusted?’. And we need to be very aware that our research will be scrutinised and our findings challenged, especially when we work in a contested field.

We know that science and research are iterative. Findings build on work that has come before. Scientists test each other’s conclusions and refine their approaches and processes to the point where a consensus is reached. Importantly, scientific consensus does not mean the weight of popular opinion; it represents the weight of evidence.

The science sector has always had a responsibility to earn and retain trust through transparent systems of accountability and through producing work of quality — demonstrating integrity in our actions. 

By being inconsistent in our use of language when we debate the merits of a piece of research — such as, for example, questions about the accuracy or completeness of a particular dataset — we can give the wrong impression that we are questioning the integrity of the science, not its quality. This erodes trust, is unhelpful to legitimate scientific debate and muddies perceptions of scientific consensus.

Classic examples are climate science and water quality in the Great Barrier Reef; research in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is another.

The urgency of the pandemic demanded the rapid publication and sharing of COVID-19 information. It necessitated extremely fast peer-reviews. As a result, some papers accepted for publication during the first year of the pandemic were subsequently retracted, including some very high profile examples. These retractions were largely the result of the authors’ scientific misconduct. However, despite the retraction rate being higher than normal, 99.926% of the published research was rigorous. That body of research helped us navigate the pandemic and allowed us to come out the other side within years, not decades. The worst thing that could have happened was for all the published research to have been brought into disrepute simply because 0.074% of it was found to have been bogus.

In my Trust in Science paper, I have sought to clarify the definitions of research quality, integrity, excellence and impact as a means to improve scientific dialogue in Australia.
Research quality relates to the way research is planned, performed and published, and the methodology, rigour and judgement applied to all aspects of the process. This includes judgements about the match between the method and research question, the selection of subjects, measurement of outcomes, protection against error and appropriateness of data analysis and interpretation. Quality research is rigorous, transparent and in principle reproducible.

Research integrity is behaviour-based. I like the definition used by Stanley G. Korenman: that integrity is the ‘active adherence to the ethical principles and professional standards essential for the responsible practice of research’. Integrity covers everything from minor inadvertent breaches to more serious breaches and misconduct such as plagiarism, falsification, image manipulation and fabrication. 

Research is excellent when it demonstrates new knowledge, new thinking, complexity of thinking, and breakthroughs in understanding difficult or new concepts, and may transcend discipline boundaries. It is an important consideration when reviewing funding proposals and research outputs. And as part of the publication peer review process, reviewers assess how innovative and important the research is and the contribution it makes to advancing the field of knowledge.

We invest in research primarily for its beneficial impacts. Research has impact when it goes beyond the walls of academia and contributes to new knowledge, the economy, society, environment or culture.

Science and research are at the heart of the search for solutions to many global challenges, as well as many everyday policy developments. But they operate in a climate where distrust of public institutions is growing and misinformation and disinformation in public discourse are increasing.

If the science and research community are to maintain public confidence, we need to be mindful that the way we practice science and the way we discuss and debate science matters. 
Good science is and should be celebrated.

Yes, we must call out instances of poor research integrity. But when we discuss and debate scientific research — and scientific process — let’s be clear that our questions, more often than not, actually relate to quality. 

Conflating issues of quality with those of integrity just gets us bogged down in wrongheaded debates.

Dr Foley’s 2023 Trust in Science paper is available for download.