A Cardiff University study has found that British scientists' attitudes differ considerably from those of their counterparts in Sweden, when managing dissent.
The research, by Lena Eriksson, a Swedish researcher in the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, has shown that British scientists operated with firm boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside' and believed that controversial scientists needed to be placed outside the community so as to not gain scientific legitimacy.
Swedish scientists were more inclined to ensure that all members 'have their say'. They were more likely to be inclusive, so as not to create adversaries who would threaten the scientific community.
"A good example of this is with new technologies such as Genetically Modified foods," said Dr Eriksson. "The media are often blamed for presenting a misleading image of science, but to some extent, public perception of such scientifically and politically charged issues turns on the way scientists present themselves to the outside world.
"The image of a scientific establishment attacking and punishing individual researchers with contentious results such as the MMR vaccine controversy - has done little to inspire public trust in science."
Her research centred on a year-long qualitative study, interviewing some 30 scientists in Britain and Sweden, all working with issues regarding genetic modification. It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), under the Science in Society Programme. The results of the study can be summarised as follows:
- British scientists viewed controversies as events, caused by pre-existing dissenters within the community. The Swedish scientists tended to think of controversies as a process, and of fully-fledged 'mavericks' as the dangerous result of a gradual positioning of disenchanted scientists who ended up attacking a community to which they no longer belonged.
- British scientists felt it was crucial to avoid giving scientific legitimacy to scientists that they described as 'mavericks' and that their distancing from the scientific community was therefore necessary. Swedish scientists thought that ousting of dissenting scientists only served to exacerbate problems.
- With the exception of university research, mechanisms for control of outgoing material tended to be more elaborate and more strictly followed in Britain, than in Sweden. British scientists also felt that a breach of procedures would have graver consequences, than did their Swedish peers.
- British scientists viewed surveying of outgoing material and communication of research as safety mechanisms in place for their own protection, whereas Swedish interviewees to perceive such procedures as a sign of increasing bureaucracy. British scientists felt a greater need for claims to be 'watertight', imagining a potentially hostile response.