Scientists Have a Responsibility to Engage

, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | July 31, 2013, 14:48 pm EST
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To be or not be an advocate? This is a question many scientists grapple with. The answer is of course not a simple yes or no, but so many through the years have attempted to make it so. This morning, Tamsin Edwards of the University of Bristol wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, provocatively entitled, “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies.” Dr. Edwards makes the claim that scientists should be above the fray. But she gets it wrong in a few ways.

Climate scientists, like all citizens, have a right to express their personal views.

Climate scientists, like all citizens, have a right to express their personal views.

The idea that scientists shouldn’t have a voice in policy discussions is naïve—and concerning. Scientists, like all citizens, have the right to engage in policy discussions. They have a right to express their opinions, political or otherwise. I’ve seen what can happen when scientists are silenced, and it certainly doesn’t provide us with better policy outcomes (see here, here, and here).

I believe that science—and therefore, scientists—should help inform policy decisions. Scientists have a unique perspective and understanding of issues, and without that perspective, the public debate is less rich and less informed (see some great examples here). While science may not be the only factor in a decision, it is essential that the best available science informs that decision.

What is important is that scientists are clear and transparent in their communication. They need to distinguish fact from opinion and make clear when they are transitioning from scientist to citizen. This is done effectively by many scientists, particularly with respect to climate change. Stephen Schneider provided an excellent example of this that now serves as a model for outstanding climate change communication.

UCS recently released a report on how well federal agencies give their scientists’ freedom to speak, including their person opinions. We found that agencies that provided their scientists with more freedom to express their professional and personal opinions to the media and the public actually performed better at being able to distinguish the science from opinion. This is because these agencies encouraged scientists to clarify when they were speaking as a scientist for the agency and when they were expressing their personal views. Problems creep up when there is ambiguity.

All science requires value judgments—we decide what research questions we ask and we interpret data to make them meaningful. But the beauty of science is that these actions are transparent. We can all see the data and we can utilize peer-review systems to help us determine the scientific consensus around complex issues like climate change. As I’ve discussed before, this is the power of the scientific process.

When it comes to climate change, we need scientists to collect data, run models, and interpret the results for us. We need them to tell us what the science says about how severe impacts will be in the future. Climate science, of course, doesn’t tell us whether we need an international treaty or a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime. But the science can help us understand how quickly mitigation actions are necessary to prevent the most damaging impacts of climate change. And I, for one, want to hear from climate scientists how urgent the problem is and what mitigation and adaptation actions might be necessary.

Do I want to hear what a scientist thinks about the policy route we should take? Maybe. He or she might have valuable insights. But ultimately, this question is best answered in a broader discussion informed by experts in science, policy, economics, and others. Regardless of who the decision makers are, on a science policy issue like climate change, scientists need a seat at the table.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity

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  • Brian Sandridge

    How is it that the predictions of doom made twenty years ago, predictions premised on insufficient curtailment of CO2 release, have not come about? It is twenty years after the first fear-mongering began.
    A “concerned scientist” must first be a scientist. And when scientists are caught having cherry-picked the data and conspiring with one another to spin their findings to fit a predetermined desired conclusion, that is a career-ending scandal. Or at least in Science-sciences.
    Why do the “Climate-Scientists” have different criteria? It appears to me that the loudest mavens of Doom have weak scientific credentials. Climate Science (I will forgo the quotes, with difficulty) seems to lack the expected integration of Physics-Scienctists, Bio-Chemsitry- Scientists, or any of the “hard” science-sciences. In addition even the less mathematically rigorous fields of Paleontology-Science and Archaeology-Science appear to not have been tapped for their inputs either.
    Climate-Scientists determine what Climate-Science is. Climate-Scientists accredit other Climate-Scientists. In none of the science-sciences are Public Relations, and Computer Modeling entry majors. In fact I believe that Climate Science stands alone as an undergrad major. Unlike Scientist-scientists who waste their undergrad years earning a general BS with perhaps a minor in a Particular Science-Science, “concerned” students major in Climate Science.
    One wonders why a student who by definition is not educated enough to speak to the validity of Climate Science chooses such a course of study. If “faith is belief in things unseen” is the choice of a Climate Science major a leap of faith?
    Though I would wager all my worldly goods that a Venn Diagram of the union of the sets: Believers In Climate-Science, and Believers in Intelligent Design have a vanishingly minuscule overlap, they share the faith-based nature of their ‘science’. (How long can I holdback the quotes? Surely not forever?)

  • Tom Cole

    The problem as I see it (I am also an environmental engineer and developed the most widely used and successful hydrodynamic and water quality model in the world), is when scientists go above and beyond when advocating certain agendas.

    By going above and beyond, I mean when a scientist skews their research in order to “provide evidence” to further their own agenda which may be due to ideology, financial considerations, refusal to admit they are wrong, etc., and which includes but is not limited to refusal to pursue other avenues of research, cherry picking data, refusal to release data to other researchers whose agenda does not coincide with theirs, denigrating opposing viewpoints in the harshest of terms, falsification of research, etc.

    I think this attitude is best summed up by “So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”. This is the public face that Schneider would prefer to put on climate change research as opposed to “here are the facts, and only the facts – make of them what you will” which is what I thought science was all about. According to Schneider, I am wrong in my supposition, and I am NOT taking Schneider’s statement out of context.

    Take a look at the explosion of scientific paper retractions in the last decade as just one example of the dumbing down of scientific research which it appears Schneider is a proponent of.

  • PaulM

    Schneider is not a good example. His (in)famous quote
    “So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have”
    is widely used and quoted by sceptics. Some of these would say that this is an example of a climate scientist deliberately misleading the public, and therefore increasing scepticism of the field. This is the kind of thing that Tamsin Edwards is talking about.

    • Gretchen Goldman

      The fact that some people trying to prove a point misquote Stephen Schneider is hardly reason to assume he is not a good example. That oft-misquoted statement was taken out of the context in which Dr Schneider in an interview was decrying the soundbite culture of the media. This was clearly a case of cherry-picking words to distort the meaning of them. The full quote in question was this:

      “On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

      For the full quote in context and Schneider’s response to critics, you can read page 5 of this document:

      Dr. Edwards was referring to scientists crossing over from discussing their science to using that science and other inputs to express policy preferences. Scientists have this right and this responsibility. See some additional discussion on this here:

      Policy discussions will almost certainly benefit from scientists’ input (also, note that policy discussions are distinct from political advocacy). The key is that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as a technical expert and when they are speaking as a citizen. I believe we can accomplish this balance.

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