McMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

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Comm Professor Studies Rhetoric and Ethics in Science

John Lynch is a communication professor and the clinical ethicist at UC's Center for Clinical and Translational Science and Training.

Date: 3/4/2011
By: Kim Burdett
Other Contact: M.B. Reilly
Other Contact Phone: (513) 556-1824
John Lynch, assistant professor in the Department of Communication in McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, studies rhetoric and discourse associated with scientific discovery both in the lab and in the public sphere. He is also the clinical ethicist at the Center for Clinical and Translational Science and Training (CCTST). The joint venture between the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Communication Assistant Professor John Lynch.
Communication Assistant Professor John Lynch

What is your role as the clinical research ethicist of CCTST?

Clinical research ethics covers a range of topics including issues in identifying authors on collaborative research projects, the ideals and best practices of mentorship, and the challenges of protecting research subjects during the study of new medical technologies. My role as the clinical research ethicist is to help educate researchers at UC and Children’s Hospital about these issues and to foster scholarship on clinical research ethics. 

I help educate by organizing grand rounds and symposia on research ethics and teaching a course on research ethics for graduate student and postdoctoral fellows at CCHMC and UC. In addition to my own research on clinical research ethics, I administer a pilot program for interdisciplinary scholarship on research ethics and work with a research ethics interest group to future interdisciplinary scholarship on the ethics of clinical research. 

What are the goals of the collaboration?

The goal of the collaboration is to facilitate the translation of new biomedical discoveries from the bench side to the bedside: to transform research findings into medical applications in the safest and most effective ways possible. In addition to educating and supporting researchers, the CCTST aims to encourage community input and engagement with research and to insure that the research is conducted within morally and socially acceptable frameworks.

Do you bring different perspectives to the table as a non-scientist? What are some recurring discussions within your group?

Because of my background, I find that I often discuss the public understanding of science and how medical researchers need to talk to laypeople. When they have to address a lay public, the first response of medical researchers is to fall into an educator role, but unless a lay public came to a lecture wanting to learn something, an educator role does not work well. What the public cares about and what scientists think is important are now always the same. Before scientists can tell people what the scientists think is important, they need to listen and hear what concerns the public has about medicine and health care. 

Why do you think it’s important to study the discourse of science?

Whether the topic is climate change, new computer technologies or biological research, science plays an increasing role in the public sphere and in private lives. For example, medical research on the human genome changes how we think about our identities and our bodies right now. When this research moves from the laboratory into everyday healthcare in the future, it will reshape how the experiences we have when we visit the doctor or deal with insurance, as well as exacerbating concerns about the privacy of medical information. How those technologies are discussed today will shape their development and their use on a large scale. We need to pay attention to those discussions and, when necessary, contribute to them.

You’ve studied a number of different subjects, including stem cell research, creationism, and ethics of clinical trials. What are some key takeaways from your research?

Public debates about science often involve people speaking past one another. Sometimes that is unintentional, but it is just as often deliberate as in debates over evolution. While people want science to inform public deliberation, neither laypeople nor scientists are well-prepared to understand the other. Scientists need to understand the background assumptions and informal logic that shapes a great deal of public discourse, and laypeople must achieve a greater level of familiarity and comfort with the uncertainties surrounding scientific research—science can answer a lot of questions, but those answers almost always are tenuous and raise further questions.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently starting two new projects. One looks at what information people would like to receive from scans of their entire genome and what factors influence those choices. The other looks at political rhetoric about scientific research misconduct and conflict of interest.

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