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On being a (modern) scientist: risks of public engagement in the UK interspecies embryo debate

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In 2006, a small group of UK academic scientists made headlines when they proposed the creation of interspecies embryos – mixing human and animal genetic material. A public campaign was fought to mobilize support for the research. Drawing on interviews with the key scientists involved, this paper argues that engaging the public through communicating their ideas via the media can result in tensions between the necessity of, and inherent dangers in, scientists campaigning on controversial issues. Some scientists believed that communicating science had damaged their professional standing in the eyes of their peers, who, in turn, policed the boundaries around what they believed constituted a “good” scientist. Tensions between promoting “science” versus promotion of the “scientist”; engaging the public versus publishing peer-reviewed articles and winning grants; and building expectations versus overhyping the science reveal the difficult choices scientists in the modern world have to make over the potential gains and risks of communicating science. We conclude that although scientists' participation in public debates is often encouraged, the rewards of such engagement remain. Moreover, this participation can detrimentally affect scientists' careers.
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Keywords: good/ethical scientist; interspecies embryos; public engagement

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Centre for Biomedicine & Society, Department of Sociology & Communications Brunel University, Kingston Lane, UxbridgeMiddlesex, UK 2: Department of Education & Professional Studies,King's College London, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Waterloo RoadLondon, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2012

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