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.
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.
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