The Role of the Public in Scientific Research

by Derek Fong, VMD, DACLAM, clinical veterinarian at the University of Colorado Denver
Throughout the 2014 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) Conference, the relationship between the scientific community and general public was a common theme that was addressed on both broad and practical levels. During the 2014 Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International Conference, which took place on April 1, one of the findings noted was a lack of participation by community members on the IACUC. I have been on IACUCs with both active and inactive community members, and have seen the important role they can play. Hence, I was happy to note that AAALAC emphasized the importance of the community member, and actually tried to measure their participation versus simply note their presence for a properly constituted committee.
In addition, a poster was presented that addressed the composition of IACUCs in the United States. I am always eager to compare notes, whether it is across institutions or across oceans, to find best practices, and it was interesting to learn that Sweden and Australia require that one-half and one-third of the committee is composed of community members, respectively. This fact highlighted for me the issue of increasing the participation of community members on IACUCs. During the AAALAC conference, it was mentioned that IACUCs can certainly have more than one community member to help rectify a lack of involvement. While I agree with this assertion, it is also worth noting that community members can be difficult to recruit. I also think the IACUC leadership should proactively engage the community members.
This theme was also addressed more broadly during a panel on harm-benefit analysis. Janet Stemwedel, PhD, an associate professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, noted that the benefits from animal research may be viewed quite differently by scientists and the public. Scientists may see benefit in scientific knowledge, but the public may ask more difficult questions such as when they will see the benefit, especially for basic science research. A common theme was the significant disconnect between the scientific community and the public. On the same panel, Thomas D. Albright, PhD, a professor in the systems neurobiology laboratories at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, noted that this disconnect was due to the reticence of scientists as well as a lack of scientific literacy in our society. I agree with both these assertions, but think the former assertion is more noteworthy to this audience. Rather than hiding in our researching buildings, we need to actively engage the public to help increase scientific literacy. In the same vein, Dr. Stemwedel addressed the need for further transparency with the public about the research process.  
Lastly, I was impressed that conference organizers not only reached out to the public, but to the opposite end of the public spectrum with a workshop, titled Identifying Common Ground Between the Animal Protection and Research Communities, that featured representatives from animal protection organizations. I was pleasantly surprised by the constructive dialogue and ability to find common ground to move the field forward.