Researchers Point to ‘Moral Obligation,’ ‘Good Citizens’ in Urging Scientists to ‘Speak Up’ on Policy

Scientists, speak up.

That’s the message from Michael Nelson, an associate professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University and John Vucetich, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Technological University.

In recent essays, first in Conservation Biology, and then in an abbreviated commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the researchers provide a literature review on arguments both for and against scientists’ moving into the realm of policy advocacy based on their findings. Vucetich says that many of the papers previously written on this subject weren’t comprehensive. “We wanted to do something synthetic to handle the various reasons (for and against advocacy) that we knew of at the time.”

So the two researchers performed a literature search of existing arguments for and against advocacy by scientists. First, they laid out the arguments against advocacy: that it could sacrifice credibility, conflict in some way with some aspect of science, take time away from doing basic research, or require developing a new skill set.

Then they laid out the arguments for advocacy: that science is a value-laden work, representing “a kind of unavoidable advocacy,” that failure to advocate could be harmful to society, and that a scientist, as a citizen, has an obligation to advocate.

Nelson and Vucetich say they had no preconceived notion of their argument in advance, and instead used pro and con reasoning to lead them to their conclusions. The arguments for advocacy held up better than the arguments against it, they say. “The authors conclude that scientists have a “moral obligation” as “good citizens” to “advocate to the best of their ability in the interest of helping society.”

Not surprisingly, the essay is generating reactions for its bold stance in favor of scientists making known their preferred policy options. Whether scientists should speak out with a clear position on how to respond to their research findings or remain aloof and distant as, for instance, “objective purveyors of the truth,” has long been a daunting issue for academics. Discussion of this issue has picked up even more steam lately as it applies to climate change, as many scientists feel stung by the effects of recent controversies and what many of them see as trumped-up accusations, with some scientists criticized as having biases. The essay has also given rise to a discussion of not whether a scientist talks policy but how, not specifically identifying or promoting certain policy options, like cap-and-trade in the case of global warming, but rather indicating that evidence points to a problem that needs fixing.

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Vucetich says that many of the papers written on this subject weren’t comprehensive. “We wanted to do something synthetic to handle the various reasons (for and against advocacy) that we knew of at the time,” Vucetich says, expressing his concern that few previous papers have taken such a comprehensive approach to the subject. “At the end of the day, we took a strong position” that scientists are obligated to be advocates, Nelson said. Being a citizen first, and a privileged one, obligates scientists to be an advocate, he says, adding that it is the scientist’s duty, as a citizen, to speak up for what he or she believes is right. “I cringe when I think of a wimpy Rachel Carson,” he says.

But this line of thinking of course has its share of critics. “Stipulating preferred policy outcomes is not the role for scientists,” says Mike Scott, a biologist and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. By taking a position, scientists align with one or more factions of public discourse. Then, the research that scientists conduct, the manner in which they conduct it, and their interpretations are “viewed through a different set of lenses,” and their credibility can be compromised, he said. Scott said he knows of scientists who are not invited to participate in certain discussions because they’re viewed as solidly in one public policy camp or another and aren’t perceived as capable of discussing related scientific issues solely on their merits. “To the extent we’re excluded from conversations, we’ve lost,” he says.

Lisette Waits, a professor of Fish and Wildlife Resources at the University of Idaho, says “there is a real danger of being perceived as biased if a scientist chooses to advocate.” And that means scientists don’t have the opportunity to be at the table when policy is being made. She says scientists shouldn’t, and aren’t qualified to, make the final policy calls, since decisions related to environment, science and natural resources are complex, and have social and economic components along with scientific ones. She thinks those policy decisions are best handled by those capable of weighing many factors in making a decision.

Even scientists who disagree with the push to advocacy believe that the paper highlighted a greater concern: that important scientific work isn’t adequately reaching those who can use it in the interests of positive change, and that scientists need to be more forceful in communicating implications of important research to the public.

‘False Dichotomy’ Seen Muffling Needed Debate

“The notion that a scientist is either an advocate or does nothing at all to shape policy is a false dichotomy that has muddled the debate about science and advocacy,” Janet Rachlow, associate professor of wildlife ecology at The University of Idaho, wrote in an e-mail. She suggested scientists can be just as effective by conducting important research, then bringing it to the attention of the public, policymakers, and advocacy organizations who can use it to advocate for positions supported by the science.

But some scientists say that merely getting the information to the public isn’t working. “Those of us in environmental science are increasingly seeing that scientific information is not enough for the policy to change in a way that addresses pressing environmental issues,” says Mark Hixon, a professor in the Department of Zoology at Oregon State University. Since he says science on its own isn’t stimulating society to address pressing environmental issues, it behooves scientists to “try something new.” And “that means putting ourselves on the line, engaging in the policy forums and political debates.” He says it makes no sense for scientists to sit back and hand over their data, then not participate in the policy or political debates.

“We’re dealing with such pressing issues right now that the Earth’s environmental systems are approaching thresholds beyond which things are going to get really bad,” Hixon says. “Scientists who understand that cannot sit back and wait for somebody else to carry the banner.”

Civil Servants as Scientists and Advocates?

Being an advocate is dicier, of course, for government scientists. But even then, “some form of advocacy is almost unavoidable,” says Paul Sandifer, senior science advisor to the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Sandifer said in a phone interview that government scientists also need to discuss with their colleagues the significance of their research results and that they shouldn’t shy away from making recommendations. He says NOAA expects its scientists to provide advice to the agency on issues within its mission, for example such as how to maintain a sustainable fishery or recover it if it is overfished. Based on the research, it may be entirely appropriate, he says, for scientists to urge action to limit greenhouse gasses, while not prescribing what those actions specifically should be.

But some other government sources see the science/public policy spheres in more black and white terms: “As scientists for the government, we can’t be advocates,” says EPA spokesman Cathy Milbourne.

If scientists are careful, they can be advocates while maintaining their scientific credibility, says Frank Davis, a professor of environmental science and management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Making their role clear is essential, he says, suggesting that they specify whether they are speaking as a scientist providing advice to policy and decision makers in a professional capacity, or instead as a concerned citizen.

Regardless of the viewpoints, Nelson and Vucetich say they are encouraged by what they see as an increasing dialog among scientists on their role as “pure” researchers or scientists as communicators and advocates. Nelson says that many scientists “feel liberated by this,” since it helps them feel their advocacy can be justified.

“They see the analysis as powerful for them.” He said he believes the essay is allowing the conversation on advocacy to take place in a different way, and at a “higher level,” than in the past.

Julie Halpert

Julie Halpert, who has covered the environment for more than two decades for national publications, is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mi. She is a regular contributor to The Yale Forum. (E-mail:, Twitter: @julhalps)
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