As science and technology are becoming more powerful in their potential to affect human lives, research institutions cannot afford to put technical expediency above human interests. This case study is an example of what can happen when a research facility, driven by scientific and technological expediency, loses the fight for the hearts and minds of the public.
The Story of the Conflict
When Brookhaven National Lab was founded in 1946, public affairs did not seem very important. Located in the middle of Long Island, the lab was surrounded by pine forests with only occasional farms and fishing villages marking the landscape. Preoccupied with their research over the years, scientists paid little attention to the lab’s public image or to the fact that, in the 50 years since the lab’s founding, the community in which it resided had become more populated, more affluent, and more environmentally aware.
In addition, because the lab’s equipment had aged during those 50 years, a growing number of environmental problems were raising concerns among community activists. The most damaging blow came in January 1997 when a tritium leak was discovered in one of the lab’s nuclear reactors. Notably, both researchers and environmental activists agreed that contamination was minimal and posed no threat to the neighboring communities or the environment. But the public, in the dark about the lab’s activities for 50 years, was already angry for what they perceived as the lab’s “scientific arrogance.” In addition, many in the community were convinced the lab was conducting secret and potentially dangerous research.
The situation was further aggravated by the lab’s mishandling of the tritium crisis. While residents expected warm reassurances and profound apologies for the situation, scientists fed them numbers on risk analysis and flow rates. The scientists’ appeal to reason was lost on the angry and scared members of the community and their lack of openness was perceived as a lack of integrity.
When the Department of Energy decided to close the reactor permanently in 1999, hundreds of Brookhaven scientists, unemployed after the cancellation of dozens of experiments, left the lab with a bitter feeling that “cynical politics won over scientific truth.”
As a communication consultant for a fictitious new research facility (not Brookhaven Labs), develop a communication plan that can help that new facility establish a mutually beneficial working relationship with the neighboring community and protect it against the type of unfortunate situation Brookhaven Labs faced. You may conduct research to assist you in developing your response.
*Adapted from an original case submitted by Maria Eichmans Cochran, Iowa State University, Ames, IA.