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Scientists and unavoidable advocacy

We don’t often hear news of a climate scientist taking a clear position on public policy matters, and it’s even more rare that we encounter news of someone high profile in the field, like James Hansen, being arrested at a demonstration against a coal fired power plant. How you feel about such incidents and the general notion of scientists being advocates is a highly personal, and often emotion, topic. This is why I think it’s worth my time and yours to take a few minutes to consider a piece written by Julie Halpert for The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Researchers Point to ‘Moral Obligation,’ ‘Good Citizens’ in Urging Scientists to ‘Speak Up’ on Policy:

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.”

“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 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.”

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.

As always, please go read it all.

I doubt anyone here will be surprised when I say that I strongly favor activism by scientists, largely for the reasons outlined above. Looking at this purely in terms of a costs and benefits, it seems clear to me that whether we’re talking about society as a whole or even individual scientists, the benefits outweigh the cots. Certainly there are cases where more extreme and less prudent examples of advocacy can result in a scientist harming his or her career, leading to a bad outcome for that individual. In the case of climate change, the benefits from improved public policy regarding CO2 emissions (assuming the scientist has any positive impact at all) could be far outweighed by opportunities lost. My instinct is that such cases would be statistical outliers, and would have as much or more to do with the scientist’s lack of judgment in the political arena than anything else.

I think it’s also critically important to be clear when discussing this issue to define what one means by advocacy. As one speaker quoted above points out, there is advocating for lower CO2 emissions, and then there is supporting a particular policy prescription for achieving that goal. Some of the climate scientists I exchange e-mail with are always on alert for pronouncements by non-scientists or scientists in other fields regarding climate. Similarly, climate scientists should tread lightly when outside of their own area of expertise. If James Hansen says we absolutely must reduce our use of coal (or somehow find a way to implement and broadly roll out workable carbon capture technology) very quickly as part of a crash effort in reducing CO2, he’s clearly on solid ground, and he has mountains of data to back up his claim. The impacts of not following that prescription will be terrible, to say the least. But when he speaks out strongly against a cap and trade policy and advocates instead for a carbon tax with a 100% refund to consumers, he’s on much thinner ice (as is just about anyone who ventures out into the intersection of economics and public policy for any reason).

Another factor at play here, one that doesn’t get enough attention, is the disappearance of affordable luxuries. The timing involved in climate change and its knock-on effects for water issues, food supplies, biodiversity loss, etc., most notably due to the lock-in effect of CO2 emissions, make it clear we’ve already eliminated any chance of finding a cheap, easy, or comfortable solution. We should have been on a war footing to deal with this mess even before Hansen’s famous 1988 testimony before the US Congress, yet we still aren’t, and there’s no sign we will be any time soon. One of the losses inherent in this situation is the luxury of the traditional view of scientists and society, in which they remain aloof, provide dispassionate data, and let the political sphere decide what, if anything, to do with it. That kind of compartmentilization of roles in society fails to serve our collective needs when we’re already in an emergency.

In more graphic terms, when an apartment house full of people is already on fire the last thing you need is someone with a PhD in fire science forcing you to sit and listen to her PowerPoint presentation on the Top Ten Ways to Avoid a House Fire. You need her to start giving orders, right this minute, and then you need to follow those orders in an effort to minimize human injury and property damage. Sound overblown? Read the current literature on our myriad, interlocking sustainability issues and then try to tell me the house isn’t already on fire and haven’t already reached the point where we need the experts doing everything they can to help us.


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