Disparate foundations of scientists' policy positions on contentious biomedical research.
What drives scientists' position taking on matters where empirical answers are unavailable or contradictory? We examined the contentious debate on whether to limit experiments involving the creation of potentially pandemic pathogens. Hundreds of scientists, including Nobel laureates, have signed petitions on the debate, providing unique insights into how scientists take a public stand on important scientific policies. Using 19,257 papers published by participants, we reconstructed their collaboration networks and research specializations. Although we found significant peer associations overall, those opposing "gain-of-function" research are more sensitive to peers than are proponents. Conversely, specializing in fields directly related to gain-of-function research (immunology, virology) predicts public support better than specializing in fields related to potential pathogenic risks (such as public health) predicts opposition. These findings suggest that different social processes might drive support compared with opposition. Supporters are embedded in a tight-knit scholarly community that is likely both more familiar with and trusting of the relevant risk mitigation practices. Opponents, on the other hand, are embedded in a looser federation of widely varying academic specializations with cognate knowledge of disease and epidemics that seems to draw more heavily on peers. Understanding how scientists' social embeddedness shapes the policy actions they take is important for helping sides interpret each other's position accurately, avoiding echo-chamber effects, and protecting the role of scientific expertise in social policy.
Edelmann, A; Moody, J; Light, R
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