Tracey Brown is the director of Sense about Science, the charity that encourages scientific thinking among the public and the people who answer to them. She leads Sense about Science’s work on the transparency of evidence used by governments in policy, to ensure that the public has access to the same evidence and reasoning as decision makers. We asked her thoughts on sound science, open trials and how women in science can overcome the barriers they face.
What is Sense About Science and why are you passionate about the issues it tackles?
Sense about Science is a charity that promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence. We equip people to make sense of evidence and ask critical questions. We do this through popular campaigns to urge scientific thinking among the public and the people who serve them, such as the Ask for Evidence campaign, and with initiatives to expand and protect honest discussions of evidence. This includes things like pushing the research community and decision makers to be transparent and open about uncertainty. I care deeply that we create societies that are properly equipped to scrutinise and hold people to account for their claims and decisions. To be critical-thinking citizens in the 21st century, we need to know what AI and peer review are, and be able to spot overstatement and dishonesty.
You are involved with the Voice of Young Science. What do you think young researchers can offer in public debates about science?
Voice of Young Science is a network that grew up out of the UK and then internationally - initially of early career researchers who attended our 'standing up for science' and peer review workshops. The ethos of the program, and of the activities people support each other in, is that you don’t have to wait until the twilight years of your career to contribute to public discussion.
It’s rather different to other programs that get early career researchers familiar with entering public, media and policy debates. It is led by seasoned journalists, politicians and so on, but it focuses on how early career researchers can address the societal need for useful tools and insights from science and evidence, rather than on show-and-tell about your own research. What they find is that you don’t need to be the leading voice in your field (yet) to contribute to a radio phone ins on fad diets or draw attention to missing evidence in a policy consultation.
You have been a leader in the AllTrials campaign and sit on the advisory board of OpenTrials. Why do you believe all clinical trial data should be open?
The first reason is patient safety. We need to know the true risks and benefits of the treatments in use today for them to be used safely for the right people. We also need to have this true picture as a baseline to assess the merits of possible new treatments. If stroke risk is understated for an existing medication, an alternative might not go into development because it looks no better, when in fact the full results of trials on the current medication would show us that it might be. Equally we might find out that a trial has already been done and results were poor, which would save putting trial volunteers at risk in a further unnecessary and expensive trial.
The second reason is that there is a social and moral obligation. Patients enter trials and funders pay for them in the belief that they are adding to the stock of knowledge about a condition and its treatment, whatever the outcome. They don’t do it in the belief that it will end up in a bunch of unpublished files.
What do you think is the biggest barrier to open science?
Where trials are concerned, honestly I think it’s sloth, and a bit of arrogance. Yes there are financial or territorial reasons why organizations and individuals hold onto information. They are pretty easy to challenge, but one of the worst barriers AllTrials has encountered is ‘it’s my data, why should I have to be bothered with sharing it?’ Well the answer to that in the case of clinical trials is yes, sure... if the trial was just on yourself.
More broadly we do battle with this all the time - people think there are more compelling calls on their efforts. We have seen it a lot in computer science, where there is a real struggle to get people to share code. We are seeing it now with governments’ responses to COVID-19 where communicating the evidence is mistakenly viewed as a drag, instead of part of managing the crisis, which it very much is. On the other hand it has been wonderful to see the burst of initiative in open science from the research community in response. So perhaps the new normal of openness that we have been seeking is with us for good.
As a woman in science, do you use your role or profile to inspire young women? If so, how?
One of the most important things we can do, when we learn how to overcome barriers is to show other people how to do it too. What I do, working in a campaigning charity, involves learning how to break consensus on things that are wrong, how to open doors that are shut, and get attention for neglected issues.
Women don’t usually get encouraged in this way, especially working class women. We set out apologizing as we start to speak. In science and in policy, hierarchies are strong - formal ones in institutions and informal ones about ‘how things are done’. I’ve loved mentoring people in our team and campaigns, and speaking with many different audiences about taking a bit more of a punk rock approach to all that. If you want to change the world, that’s what works.
This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.