Training Experts for a More Engaging Act

Backstage Decisions, Front-stage Experts: Part 6

As we’ve surveyed in the last posts, technical scientific expertise is a central criterion for a seat at the table for decision-making around new biotechnologies. Where does this expectation come from?

In this post, we explore how scientists come to see themselves as the experts and how they come to internalize the boundary between science and the public. We look at what makes up a lab environment and examine some of the ways scientists are exposed to social and ethical issues to better understand where these orientations might come from and what opportunities there are for developing more inclusive and democratic values. Our hope is to find avenues for promoting reflexivity in STEM, that is, the examination of one’s beliefs, commitments, justifications and practices during the process of research.

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During their training, scientists are exposed to the scientific method, hypothesis building, new scientific language and concepts, and famous findings and inventions of the era. Through this learning process, students acquire the values, norms, and expectations of science from peers, mentors, and instructors. Undergraduates learn these through coursework and interactions with graduate students, lecturers, and faculty members, and continue to be exposed to these values post-graduation as they move into scientific careers or pursue advanced degrees. Students learn what it means to write and question “like a scientist,” as well as what makes “good” and “bad” science. Along with this, scientists learn about their role in society and how to value their expertise for decision-making in society. 

Lab Life and the Responsible Conduct of Research

Existing models of training are based on antiquated social forms that can easily devolve into authoritative and hierarchical environments. These features of academia can then transfer over to how scientists act and make decisions outside of their discipline. The breakdown of the lab follows academic titles that often signal academic research experience. These typically include the principal investigator (PI), postdoctoral fellows, research associates, graduate students, lab technicians, and undergraduate researchers, with undergraduate students having the least experience and the PI having the most experience. The authority of senior scientists means their insights are perceived to be of higher value and are given more legitimacy in making research-related decisions. With more experience in the lab, and research more generally, also comes the task of training scientists in the positions below. Other than research interests, the lab is also held together by bonds of loyalty, professional debt, friendship, and group identity, leading to complex research group dynamics.

Both professional relationships and the academic environment play key roles in shaping people who are interested in pursuing a career in science. Lab members are informed about the type of work that is valued, expectations of themselves and other scientists, and lab traditions or rituals through their daily interactions in group meetings and shared work spaces. These experiences foster a sense of membership in the group. Similar to family trees, scientific communities form tight networks of researchers related by the labs where they were trained. Over time, PIs remain the head of the lab as most other lab members receive their training and move on to pursue their next career move. Because of their permanence, PIs are important arbiters that can reproduce, maintain, or transform the social, cultural, and scientific elements of the lab—sometimes requiring loyalty and the expectation of professional debt. Trainees then pass these shared experiences on to their mentees, ultimately resulting in a complex system of patronage that shapes the social structure of a scientific discipline. In other words, senior scientists help other members of the lab develop their identity as a scientist.

Part of training to be a scientist includes learning about ethical research practices and other forms of professional standards. Many of these standards have become formally instituted into scientific training programs and research labs as codes of ethical research conduct. Trainees and senior scientists alike are required to complete, at a baseline, a brief online training, or ideally a year-long seminar on research misconduct. These trainings include topics such as research transparency, data fabrication, professional misconduct, and data collection and management. In the U.S., these trainings are often narrowly focused on reducing data fabrication and plagiarism. As such, they fail to develop scientists’ ability to think reflexively about how their beliefs, privilege and identity can shape their science or an understanding of the social, political and moral dimensions of their work.

Ethical training at the NIH is defined as “the practice of scientific investigation with integrity. It involves the awareness and application of established professional norms and ethical principles in the performance of all activities related to scientific research.” What about ethical practices for training and mentoring aspiring scientists, or for developing a lab culture that names boundaries, enforces protocols when a workers’ boundaries have been overstepped, and allows for new members the opportunity to willingly consent to joining a lab after knowing how a lab handles conflict? These types of questions are less about research misconduct and more about the social and cultural conditions of science. These conversations are rare in any required ethical research training course.

Gender and racial disparities continue, in part, because of the lack of creativity and action in addressing the social conditions of scientific work spaces. Gender and racial disparities in science leadership positions remain a persistent issue, and consequently affect the outcome of scientific activities and decisions made within the scientific community. When the majority of the decision-makers are of a homogenous group with similar vantage points, their perspectives are narrowed and do not reflect values of the broader society. Currently, most of the scientists being trained are cis, het, able-bodied white men who have experienced scientific training programs as white men, and were mentored at elite universities (which have a long history of excluding marginalized communities) by—more than likely—other white men. 

Ultimately, these social and cultural conditions shape what is, at a fundamental level, a professional workplace. Research is labor. Put in these terms, keeping scientists-in-training out of the decision-making about how emerging technologies should be governed means alienating postdocs, graduate students, technicians, and undergraduate workers from the products of their labor and stripping them of the agency to contribute to the direction of science and consider its significance to society. As critics of the Asilomar process exclaimed in the 1970s, it was, and continues to be, a mistake to exclude lab tech and staff from discussions about the safety risks of technologies that they would be exposed to. 

Views from the backstage: what scientists at the table have to say

That scientists face challenges when attempting to engage the public or contribute to policy development in democratic ways should not come as a surprise. Dominant models of scientific training do not reward scientists’ efforts at public or political engagement and tend to see such service as a distraction. Scientists in training are told to focus on their lab work and publish to move forward. However, this current pattern, where technical expertise is seen as more valuable than participation in discussions about the social implications of science, contradicts the accounts of scientists at the helm.

When we asked scientists who had been involved in the Napa Valley meeting what kind of expertise they brought to the table and why they felt they were invited to participate, their responses indicated that they brought non-technical forms of expertise to the fore. We asked scientists about how they shaped their viewpoints about biotechnology and its relationship to society. One of the sources that fed scientists’ perspectives was reading outside of their academic discipline. We heard people reference the work of various philosophers and social scientists. Interviewees also found opportunities to supplement their scientific training with philosophical discussions related to science with their peers in small reading groups. They described meeting regularly to discuss ethics, politics, and philosophy of science. This suggested to us that group discussions and diverse reading lists can be instrumental in developing a greater awareness about how science intersects with culture, politics, and civil society. Unfortunately, a theme in the interviews was a lack of support and encouragement by mentors to explore opportunities to delve into topics outside of a mentee’s formal training program.

Our interviewees described in detail how the experiences they engaged in outside of their formal training were major influences on how they approach decision-making. The most important experiences, they argued, were service-related learning experiences that involved direct communication with communities that would benefit from the technology and science they were working on (in this case, genetic engineering tools). Scientists expressed that these experiences gave them a greater sense of responsibility and helped strengthen the relationship between their work and broader communities. Through these interactions, scientists learned basic skills such as active listening and more complex ones such as higher sensitivity to the lived experience of communities directly affected by new genetic technologies, mainly patients. Exposure to patients and clinical processes were important for scientists because it helped them understand the stakes of their work.

Completely unprompted, participants from the Napa Valley meeting also discussed their political participation as a source of skill and expertise. One interviewee mentioned their engagement with political movements in the late 1960s during anti-Vietnam War protests:

So I was in Berkeley in the late 60s…This is a time of a lot of social activity. Protests that went on against the Vietnam War in favor of civil rights. There was a lot of protest activity going on and I was involved in that to some extent, you know, I went on marches. I went door-to-door one summer in opposition to the Vietnam War…Um, so I had to you know- I had sort of a social equity outlook on life. All the way from my upbringing from college- and then at Berkeley you really couldn’t avoid being involved in some of these social issues.

This respondent went on to discuss how their commitments towards social equity shaped their decision-making around emerging technologies. In another interview, a respondent described how taking time off of their graduate program to work on a local election campaign motivated them to participate in science policy forums later in their career. 

However, these examples also suggest that how a scientist chooses to engage with social movements can have lasting effects on how they think of themselves as being a part of a larger community. If scientists participate without thinking about how they, as scientists, benefit from current economic, political and social contexts, social movements can fail in challenging individuals to consider how their network building and activism affect themselves and may exclude others from different communities. 

To give a contemporary example, the March for Science (MfS) movement in January 2017 protested the Trump administration’s anti-science policies and actions. While the issues about science funding were urgent, MfS organizers failed to address language issues in MfS that were dismissive of the experience of marginalized communities in science. [1] How a participant in MfS chooses to critically engage in the movement will influence how this individual sees the world and whether they intentionally or unintentionally reproduce inequities in science. By asking scientists to think about both their role in society and about the community of science itself, social movements provide knowledge and creativity that scientists can contribute to and use as a resource when making decisions and reflecting on the implications of emerging technologies. 


These reflections underscore our central claim: that movement towards a more democratic decision-making process in science is critically needed. Throughout our posts we have looked at decision-making around two genetic technologies, rDNA and the CRISPR-Cas system, to understand how dominant modes of understanding and attributing expertise led scientists to make undemocratic decisions about governance. We showed how reluctance to include journalists and members of the broader public during debates in the 1970s exacerbated public distrust in rDNA technology. Additionally, we highlighted how the absence of a broader set of scientific experts and workers led to narrow safety recommendations that ignored environmental protections and the implications of commercializing early biotechnologies. In the case of CRISPR-Cas9, we showed how the Asilomar model was re-applied even though scientists attempted to include more diverse publics, though performatively, and how committee-based governance can still lead to faulty decision-making. 

Moving toward a more democratic movement in scientific decision-making will require three institutional shifts: (1) the inclusion and empowerment of more viewpoints from different corners of society, (2) the application of social justice lenses when discussing scientific issues that challenge the existing elitist and self-interested status quo, and (3) acknowledging and embracing the important social aspects each person contributes to scientific conversations. By doing this, the scientific community can distance itself from traditional paradigms about what research should look like and who should be involved in research that are exclusionary and ineffective in considering the values of the broader society.

At a baseline, achieving these goals requires changing how scientists become scientists. Science must imagine alternative forms of training and adjust existing models to the needs and orientations of new generations of scientists. Examining basic questions about who participates in science (i.e., what a scientist does and should look like, what it means to be and to think like a scientist) can help challenge the deficit model of the public. 

Our current system of scientific training is not adequate to fulfill the imagination and future desires of society. This has also been an issue raised by the National Academies. Science training needs to account for the lived experiences and futures of marginalized communities. Current science environments contain disparaging messages that foster insecurity and invalidate the experience of students on campus and in the classroom. Too often, one can observe science teachers using the “banking” model of education, a term first used and discussed by Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire, where teachers impart knowledge, and students are expected to absorb what the instructor has taught. Learning to critique ideas, build new knowledge, and develop practices that do not reproduce social inequalities requires back and forth conversation between instructors and students. The lack of diversity in STEM departments, after decades of intentional efforts to engage students from diverse backgrounds, suggests a need for alternative methods to engage students. We learn within dynamic political, economic, and cultural landscapes that influence how aspiring scientists show up and navigate lab life and lab culture, and these topics need to be actively discussed as a part of scientific training. 

 We argue that change needs to come from how we bring new scientists into the classroom and the laboratory, following through to the environments we create to support them and the way we value their future trajectories. Part of this includes providing students with tools to interrogate privileges, confront assumptions, and critique their own understanding of science, as each of these elements are realities of the broader public that show up in science. The social identities we hold shape how we experience the world, and the same goes for how scientists experience their scientific training. The types of questions we find perplexing, the research methods we implement, and the ways we interpret our data are all aspects that scientists have agency over during their research. Diversity in science and scientific decision-making can bring alternative hypotheses into conversation and lead to the identification of false assumptions and limitations on how research questions are framed.

Science curriculum development and pedagogy will need to (1) be co-constructed and reflective of the current moment through input from students and instructors, (2) create conditions that support students aspirations to continue to pursue science, (3) use evidence from psychology, education and sociology to inform course design and pedagogical methods, (4) create courses and classrooms that are student-centered and allow students and instructors to probe their biases and confront impulses that are rooted in harmful stereotypes and assumptions, (5) incorporate programs that invest in the psychological health and well being of research groups, which greatly impact trainees learning.

When thinking about future directions for how to improve scientific training in a way that encourages more participation and engagement from various backgrounds and cultures, our understanding of retention and recruitment needs to be expanded. Part of retention also includes expanding the types of skills appreciated and encouraged in scientific training programs and courses, developing curriculum that better contextualizes science and its multifaceted legacy, and improving relationship building skills among faculty, staff and instructors that does not rely on “one-size-fits-all” mentoring strategies. Other aspects of expanding current training also include:

  • Valuing service and social justice work as an asset to scientific skill development by recognizing, providing resources and funding this type of work.
  • Valuing creative, engaging and inclusive pedagogical techniques and curriculums by considering these techniques and skills in promotion and hiring practices, especially in research focused universities. And pProviding institutional funding and resources to support faculty curriculum development.
  • Expanding institutional support for non-academic jobs and non-traditional paths through science. 
  • Creating and supporting more student-centered pedagogical training in the sciences that centers justice and inclusion through faculty courses and seminar series.
  • Providing equitable access to research experiences for undergraduate students, and fairly compensating them for their labor.
  • Promoting interdisciplinary learning by fostering participation in the humanities and social sciences and investing in existing interdisciplinary programs.

If you would like to continue exploring what more inclusive scientific practices can look like, and what it means to think of (de)colonialism in relationship to science and scientific training, we offer these resources as a point of departure: 

This is the final post in a 6-part series. Click here for the entire series!

[1] Zevallos (2017) “The March for Science Can’t Figure Out How to Handle Diversity” Latino Rebels. (Accessed Online 2/3/21:

Santiago Molina (he/they) is a sociologist and proud dog dad living in New Orleans. They research how social orders are (re)produced alongside the development of new genetic technologies. They also obsess constantly over their house plants and enjoy a good video game.

Gordon Pherribo (he/him) is a Black Queer microbiologist living in Oakland, CA. He was raised in New Jersey and has a deep fondness for nature and wildlife. His research interests explore both science culture in doctoral training programs and nutrient interactions in microbial communities.