There has been a long and multifaceted discussion about the role of communications in nutrition science and the extent to which scientists involved in nutrition research should be mass communicators, that is, communicators to the mass media both old and new. To date, there has been relatively little attention in the literature toward the ethical issues in science communication. This article explores some of the key ethical questions nutrition scientists might face as they communicate their research to journalists and the broader public: aside from the much debated financial conflicts of interest, what other researcher biases should be communicated along with the research results? What responsibilities does the researcher have toward ensuring completeness and accuracy of the publishing journal's press release? How hard should the scientist strive to make sure the public understands the implications of the research? And there are even more difficult questions: when they communicate with the public or with journalists, do scientists censor or position their observations because of future funding concerns or opportunities? Are they appropriately critical (or too critical) of their colleagues' work and of published articles in journals they hope to approach with their own studies? Surprisingly, recent research suggests that these questions tend not to be broadly discussed among scientists but are left to individual researchers to ponder-by themselves
A thoughtful piece on communication
Sylvia Rowe, MA, is an adjunct professor at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also the president of SR Strategy, a health, nutrition, food safety, and risk communications and issue management consultancy located at Washington, DC. Previously, Ms Rowe served as president and chief executive officer of the IFIC and IFIC Foundation, nonprofit organizations that communicate science-based information of food safety and nutrition issues to health professionals, journalists, government officials, educators, and consumers.
Nick Alexander, BA, is former senior media counselor for the International Food Information Council Foundation, Washington, DC. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. A former network correspondent with ABC News, Mr Alexander has been, for the past 7½ years, tracking and writing about science communications issues and the evolving challenge to public acceptance of credible science.
Correspondence: Sylvia Rowe, MA, 1100 Connecticut Ave. NW, #1000, Washington, DC 20036 (firstname.lastname@example.org).