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Confronting stem cell hype

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Science  13 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6287, pp. 776-777
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf4620

The way science is represented to the public can influence understanding and expectations, frame policy debates, and affect the implementation and use of emerging technologies. Inaccurate representations of research may, for example, lead to public confusion about the readiness of a technology for clinical application. As a result, the issue of science “hype”—in which the state of scientific progress, the degree of certainty in models or bench results, or the potential applications of research are exaggerated—is receiving increased attention from the popular press, the research community, and scientific societies (1). In newly issued guidelines on the ethical conduct of human pluripotent stem cell research and clinical translation (2), the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) explicitly recognizes and confronts the issue of science hype. By placing a clear obligation on researchers, the ISSCR hopes to make balance in public representations of research a norm associated with scientific integrity. The focus on public communication, which is new to this version of the guidelines, is the result of both specific concerns regarding how stem cell research has been portrayed in the public sphere and the growing recognition that researchers play an important role in the science communication process.

Enthusiasm and optimistic speculation are natural parts of research and innovation and can be a constructive force that helps to attract funding and to build research communities. But sustained hype—if defined as scientifically unsupportable exaggeration—cannot, in the aggregate, be viewed as a positive force (1). Stem cell research has generated much hyperbolic media attention (3), which moves away from discussions of ethical concerns (4) and toward positive portrayals of potential therapeutic applications (5). This raises the risk of harmful consequences, including misleading the public (3), creating unrealistic expectations, misinforming policy debates, devaluing methodical approaches to research (6), and driving premature or unwarranted clinical use (7). This is particularly important in light of mounting concern about the marketing of unproven stem cell treatments (8). This trend may have led to a gap between public expectations and the actual state of stem cell science and clinical development (9).

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The hyping of science implicates many actors and systemic pressures, including career and publication pressure, overly optimistic press releases, commercialization and translation pressure, and media spin (10). Studies have found, for example, widespread use of sensational language in peer-reviewed abstracts, studies, and institutional press releases (1113). The popular press privileges benefits over risks and represents stem cells as ready for clinical application (14) on overly optimistic timelines (5). Social media can further spread distorted accounts of scientific findings and may help to entrench misrepresentations in the public mind (15). Social controversies surrounding stem cell research may have also fueled hype by polarizing rhetoric around harms and benefits (16, 17).

GUIDELINES. The ISSCR guidelines build on norms developed by other scientific organizations in addressing issues in science communication (18) and encouraging the scientific community to engage with the public (19). Consistent with fundamental principles of scientific integrity, the ISSCR urges stem cell researchers to “promote accurate, balanced, and responsive public representations of stem cell research,” including striving to “ensure that benefits, risks and uncertainties of stem cell science are not misrepresented” (2). One way of achieving this is for researchers to describe their findings against base rates. For example, if a study reports a new potential treatment for spinal cord injury, researchers should consider how other treatments have fared in previous clinical development programs, as many stakeholders may be unaware of the high attrition rates of investigational products (20). Scientists are encouraged to work with institutional communications professionals on press releases, with the understanding that the author of a study should guide the content and tone.

The guidelines call on scientists to avoid offering overly optimistic statements about economic impact and development horizons, such as predicting near-term clinical applications when a finding is preliminary. In reporting on clinical results, the guidelines emphasize the responsibility to describe the primary end points of the study design and to acknowledge whether or not they were met; post hoc shifting of goalposts to give positive spin to negative results violates principles of honest and accurate communication.

The guidelines include recommendations to help clinical researchers avoid confusing the language of research with the language of care. Specifically, research is primarily designed to generate knowledge, which may not lead to improved care for a given patient, e.g., if the patient is in the control group or the intervention is not beneficial. This error is known to facilitate therapeutic misconception and may cause human research subjects to misunderstand the actual objective of experimental interventions (21).

The guidelines recommend that researchers should make “timely corrections of inaccurate or misleading public representations of research projects, achievements, or goals” (2). The research community's obligation to encourage accuracy does not end when the popular press takes control. Researchers should consider using social media (22), which have been shown to be an effective corrective device in other areas of science (23).

Because the forces that twist how science is communicated are complex, systemic, and interrelated, correcting for science hype will not be easy and will require the simultaneous use of various policy tools and vigilant self-control. Clarifying appropriate norms of behavior can be a powerful starting point, as it can help to establish a benchmark against which future actions can be measured. By highlighting and cautioning against specific forms of hyperbole and miscommunication, the ISSCR hopes not only to alert its members to the dangers of misinforming stakeholders but also to facilitate accurate and appropriate public exchange. Hype is not inevitable.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: The authors thank the ISSCR and the Guidelines Update Taskforce for insight and assistance and B. Murdoch for research help.
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