Straight Talk About Science

MBP Director Danielle Tullman-Ercek spoke to a delegation from Austria about the importance of communication in building public trust about scientific research.

To Danielle Tullman-Ercek, being an effective scientist is about more than understanding the science. In her eyes, successful researchers also must be able to explain the significance of their work to people outside of the scientific community. 

Without that good communication, misinformation and the fear that comes from it can shape the debate, alter important policy decisions, and hurt scientific advancement.  

MBP Director Danielle Tullman-ErcekThat was one of the messages Tullman-Ercek, director of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Biotechnology Program (MBP), recently shared with a high-level delegation from Austria that visited Northwestern to learn about the role trust in science plays in democracy. The delegation represented the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science, and Research, and heard from several Northwestern faculty members during its visit.  

“It affects everyone in the bioengineering space if we talk to somebody not in the field about what we do,” she said. “It is our job to train students how to talk to everyone outside of science about our work.”  

That work is often filled with ethical questions that can breed mistrust if not communicated well. Questions typically start when a project receives federal funds.  

“What is the most responsible use of that money?” Tullman-Ercek asked. “Do you work on something that helps a million people with a debilitating disease or work on something that affects only 10,000 people but that is deadly? These are always questions that arise when you start doing research in any area or with any technological innovation.”  

Tullman-Ercek told the delegation about the collaborative environment at Northwestern, where faculty members are encouraged to serve on outside committees developing guidelines surrounding biotechnology ethics. She also emphasized how MBP students aren’t just taught to do life-changing work but to be able to communicate the importance of that work.  

“Part of our big challenge is that the broader society doesn’t get to see what scientists really do in the movies,” she said. “They see either the evil person or the person who saves the world in the end by wearing a lab coat and saying something that sounds smart for one sentence. They don’t see all the work that goes into this.”  

Tullman-Ercek encouraged the delegation to think beyond the technology that launches scientific advancements and instead to examine its application when determining what regulations are necessary. She used the example of CRISPR technology that allows for DNA editing.  

“There’s this knee-jerk reaction by many, many people to try to regulate the technology rather than the way it would be used,” she said. “With CRISPR, there’s the potential to edit babies to cure them of some disease they would die from by the age of 10, but there’s also the potential to give them the color eyes you want them to have.” 

Instead of creating regulations limiting the development of CRISPR technology, Tullman-Ercek said, governments should look carefully at when that technology should be used – and when it shouldn’t. 

“Stop going after the technology,” she said, “differentiate the technology from the science it enables.” 

Tullman-Ercek said current and prospective MBP students should notice that an important delegation from another country chose Northwestern for this topic of conversation.  

“Hopefully the Austrian delegation's visit shows that it’s not just important to learn the science or the technology, but it’s important to learn how the science and technology are impacting other people and how to communicate that impact," she said. "Other people care that our students are learning these things, and that will set our students apart when they graduate from MBP." 

McCormick News Article