Should Environmental Scientists Be Policy Advocates?

  • Published on May 20th, 2009

Who should be making environmental policy decisions? Politicians or scientist-advocates?This week on Capitol Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is in the process of thoroughly mutilating some of the science behind climate change and energy independence. With an expected 450 or so amendments to the American Clean Energy and Security Act, it is abundantly clear that politics and segmented interests are shaping what should largely be a scientific plan of action. One could easily ask the question: “Why are politicians doing what a scientist should be doing? Why aren’t the scientists telling us how this should go?” It is a question that has been discussed for decades, if not centuries, and boils down to whether or not a scientist has a duty to be—or to NOT be—an advocate for what he or she studies.

In a paper published recently in the journal Conservation Biology, Michael Nelson, of Michigan State University, and John Vucetich, of Michigan Technological University, attempt to summarize all the available arguments both for and against scientists-as-advocates. Their conclusion, arrived at because of the determination that scientists are citizens first and scientists second, is that the scientific community should indeed be more involved in advocacy than it is. Climate change, to me, seems to be the ideal spot for this to take place.

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One of the arguments against advocacy that Nelson and Vucetich discuss is one that I have seen most frequently: that science should be an objective and truth-seeking endeavor, and engaging in advocacy only muddies that equation. In my opinion, though, that argument skips a step. Why, exactly, should science be objective? Imagine for a moment a climate scientist in Bangladesh, the low-lying Asian country to the east of India. This scientist runs a particular mathematical model and discovers that sea levels will rise a full meter more than previously predicted within the next century due to climate change, and only drastic and immediate action on emissions might prevent this from happening. The country may soon be under water, with millions of people displaced from their homes. Does the scientist simply publish his model, and move on to the next project? Does he/she say, “that is the science, do with it as you will.”? Or does he/she take to the streets (so to speak) and shout the results as loud as possible, to the Bangladesh government, to the international scientific community, to the world at large: “Do something, or my country will be destroyed!”

That, of course, would be advocacy. And the example is a relatively simple one, and I am guessing that many would agree that the scientist should do whatever he/she can to help solve the problem. Try another possibility, though: what if the model shows a less than expected increase in sea levels? The waters will rise, say, one meter instead of two. That one meter will still be enough to drastically alter the world, specifically places like Bangladesh or the Maldives (or even, perhaps, New York City), but it is obviously not as destructive as two meters. Does the scientist then realize that this new piece of information could fuel climate deniers’ increasingly limited arsenals, and somehow work to counteract that? By simply passing the new information along to policy makers, the scientist would allow distortions of that always elusive “objective truth,” and suddenly the willingness to take action in defense of those at risk may disappear. By strongly engaging in advocacy, though, some of that may be avoided. “Yes, this model shows it is only one meter of sea level rise, but it doesn’t matter. We still must act decisively, be it one meter or two, to avoid catastrophe.”

Nelson and Vucetich’s paper paints an interesting picture of the ongoing debates around scientists and advocacy, and in the end I agree with its conclusions. And given the immediacy of the climate change issues, and the fact that we have such brilliant scientific minds as Rep. Joe Barton (I wish sarcasm came across better in print) engaged in crucial policy decisions, I hope the scientists start to listen. You don’t need to stay tied to the lab bench. Come out for some air, we’re dying to hear from you.

Image courtesy of tvol on flickr via a Creative Commons license

About the Author

Dave is a science writer focusing on science, health and the environment. You can find other examples of his work at davelevitan.com. Follow him on Twitter @davelevitan.