Why are we vilifying researchers for their work?

Visual: Star

How can research on public health impact government policy? Let's start with some insight from the salmon farming industry in Norway. Even though it produces half of the world's farmed salmon, Norwegian farmed salmon is strictly prohibited for expectant women and children according to Nordic health guidelines. Instead of shying away from revealing health risks, the Norwegian government depended on research findings to improve its aquaculture policies. As a result, recent studies in 2021 show decreasing pollutants in farmed salmon.

This is an example of how research can alter public policies, especially those that pose a public health risk. However, recent events suggest this may be a difficult sell in Bangladesh.

The case in point is that of an agricultural scientist, whose research findings of carcinogenic elements in brinjal (begun) harvested in parts of Bangladesh were lambasted on a local TV network recently. I failed to process the reasons for criticising him. Is it because he used the government's money to carry out research that has implications for public health? But how can a scientist be reprimanded for producing knowledge that was, prior to that, unknown?

Could the reason be that he published his findings in a well-known journal before sharing it widely locally? But then, any researcher has the liberty to publish their research as they see fit, within the guidelines set by funding sources. In fact, most public funding bodies push for open access data so that the research is made available to the public immediately and free of cost (which was done in this case).

Was he reprimanded because the discussants (both of them journalists) or the anchor of the TV show he attended had never heard of the journal in question? Perhaps they were frustrated because they did not understand the basic findings of the research, even in layman terms. But was it not their responsibility to gather some field-specific knowledge and educate themselves about the scientific jargon prior to the interview, or at least invite a discussant who has some knowledge about agricultural science?

One of the discussants of the show expressed their outrage over the fact that the research was on brinjal and not jhinga. And while I can appreciate their personal love for this vegetable, a journalist should apply some level of rational thought to explain their opinions. It is understandable if they are not familiar with the specific terminology or morphological elements of both vegetables, but it requires someone to be very oblivious to scientific research methods indeed to ask such a question on live television. I take it that the question was intended to mock his research findings, or worse, hint at an ulterior motive for creating public panic. But did he deserve any of that for bringing to light the fact that traces of harmful (carcinogenic) elements in brinjal could be injurious to public health?

The interest this interview generated on social media made it clear that it was unprofessional, mediocre and lacked civility. But what sent chills down my spine was the insinuation that a scientist should be charged with a criminal offence for creating panic. If the findings are truly so serious, should the media not be asking what has happened to our soil or our farming industry for our food to have harmful elements in it? But instead of thanking him for bringing this concern into the public eye, the show's guests and host chose to blame him for it instead.

What can we make out of this attitude of disregard? Why are we so loath to accept that the water we drink is contaminated, the air we breathe is polluted, and the society we live in is corrupted? It requires effort to keep the environment safe and clean. And the first step towards that effort is acknowledging the fact that there is a problem.

This research on brinjal was one such acknowledgment of the facts. In an ideal world, the media would contribute in dissecting its nuances and presenting it in layman's language. The questions we should have asked are the specifics of this research, the area of collected samples, the probable causes behind finding heavy metals in food crops, and the long term or short-term solutions to such cases. I am not making an argument against criticism, rather saying that respectful debates are the only way to know the facts. The attitude of wholesale disregard will not get us anywhere. In this case, we needed to ask a lot more than why brinjal, and not jhinga?

Morsaline Mojid is a PhD Candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, US.  


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