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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

Science: You Can't Fake It

I don’t agree with everything FDA Commissioner Califf has to say, but he made a comment that I passionately agree with: You can’t fake being a scientist.

I had the privilege of speaking on a FSMA related panel at the Association of Food and Drug Officials meeting in Norfolk, VA this week. The Commissioner gave some prepared remarks in the morning, and then joined a panel along with Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA FSIS, Dr. Emilio Esteban and Dr. Rob Tauxe from CDC. An attendee asked a question about jobs within the agency, specifically jobs for people with management backgrounds. After some perfunctory comments about always looking for good people, the Commissioner chimed in. He stated that the greatest need of a scientific organization is scientists. As a scientist, that made me feel good!

At a time when science and scientists are questioned; or perhaps more accurately stated, at a time when science and scientists are viewed with skepticism at best, and disdain and vitriol at worst, it is encouraging to hear someone stand up for scientists. Which, on reflection, is pretty sad.

I’ve often wondered what it was like to be a scientist or an engineer during the 1960s, when the general public viewed science as cool (at least that’s the sense I’ve gotten). The space race spawned innovations that are ubiquitous today, from calculators to Tang. Scientists made good things happen.

I decided to ask Chat GPT if science was cool. Here’s the answer:

As an AI, I don't have personal opinions or emotions, but I can provide you with information. Science is a fascinating and essential field of study that explores the natural world through observation, experimentation, and analysis. It encompasses a wide range of disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and many more. Science plays a crucial role in advancing our understanding of the universe, discovering new technologies, and improving our lives. It allows us to unravel the mysteries of nature, make predictions, and develop evidence-based solutions to problems. Scientific advancements have led to remarkable achievements and innovations throughout history, shaping the way we live and interact with the world. Whether science is cool or not is subjective and depends on individual interests and perspectives. However, many people find science captivating because it unveils the wonders of the universe, challenges our assumptions, and opens up possibilities for exploration and discovery. It can be intellectually stimulating, inspiring, and empowering. Additionally, science encourages critical thinking, fosters curiosity, and promotes a deeper understanding of the world around us.

I agree. Good scientists use their critical thinking skills to question, probe, test, and advance knowledge. They seek to discern fact from fiction. But do you need to be a scientist, and do you need to have scientific training, to pursue a role in science? The Commissioner seemed to think so (and I agree). I did not have time to write down his comment verbatim, but he essentially said that the expertise required for scientific roles requires a scientific background. I’m quite certain he said “you can’t fake that”. It reminded me of a post I made 2 years ago, asking LinkedIn members what they thought was *the* most important skill to be a good produce safety professional (based on a conversation I had with 40 United Fresh members). Within the UFPA group at that time, only 16% said scientific/ technical background! Nearly half said “communication” and about a third said regulatory/ compliance. The additional comments on LinkedIn provided overwhelming support for communication. Without a scientific foundation, can you effectively communicate about risks and mitigations?

There are some excellent science communicators out there—including those who have been trained in scientific principles and follow the scientific method and have learned how to communicate, as well as those who have been trained in communication and know how to work with scientists to translate technical topics. But the field is muddied with people who seem to think their personal opinions should carry as much (or more!) weight as scientific evidence.

During the panel discussion, the Commissioner went on to say that we are “failing in our effort to explain science to the American public”. While I agree with the ‘community’ that communication skills are important, and that we scientists need to be better communicators, I would rather see scientists improve their communication skills, versus have communications (or management, or other non-scientists) try to fake being scientists.

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