Researchers, research funders and research communicators — almost all of them start with the same assumption: The only social impact research can have is positive. (It’s research, after all!) We can scarcely imagine research having negative social impact, much less having to plan against our research having negative social impact.
Of course, that’s naive. Research has linked vaccines to autism. Research has touted all sorts of nutrition benefits that proved unreplicable. Research has touted the benefits of herd immunity and quack cures for COVID-19. All sorts of research — both fraudulent and well-intentioned — has had negative social impact. And as research gets increasingly taken up by the reinforcing swirl of social media and hyperpolarization, the possibility of this “grimpact” — only increases.
In the latest episode of Science+Story: The Podcast, I talk about grimpact with Gemma Derrick, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University who co-introduced the concept to the world with her late colleague Paul Benneworth. Derrick and I talk about when and why grimpact occurs, why it’s so difficult for the normal mechanisms of science to contain the bad impact of research, why she thinks the drive for impact in research actually fuels grimpact, and why the public’s demand for clear answers might make grimpact inevitable. Here’s a quote from Derrick on that last point:
It’s very difficult to communicate risks. And science and the way it’s governed is all about weighing up different risks. And it’s difficult to communicate that in the way that science is communicated at the moment. We always write papers with ‘the limitations of this paper were’ and ‘we suggest things for further study,’ and the public want answers. What the public wants from science are clear, usable answers, and science is just not structured in a way to offer that kind of information. They want to know, ‘Is it safe for me to take a vaccine?’ ‘Is it safe for me to turn on a TV?’ ‘Is it safe for me to download 5G into a phone?’ And science isn’t about communicating a yes/no answer. It’s all about yes/but, yes/but. And it’s very difficult for concerned individuals to be able to weigh up the pros and benefits and come up with a clear answer, a clear direction, and implement that personally.
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