Scientists Should Engage in Policy, But It’s a Balancing Act


Scientists sometimes ‘have a special responsibility to engage on policy issues’ relevant to their science. But they need to proceed with care when they remove their scientist hats and speak instead as citizens. Reposted with permission of The Conversation.

In a recent speech at the British Science Festival in Newcastle, England, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees said on policy issues “scientists have a special responsibility to engage”. Yet he added: “They should accept that on the economic, social and ethical aspects of any policy they speak as citizens and not as experts.”

But are scientists able to distinguish between areas where they are experts and where they speak as citizens? Or do they make it clear on which basis they are speaking? Some scientists’ cries of “kill the badgers”, “we must have GM crops” or “go for nuclear power” lead me to think that sometimes the two roles have blurred edges.

There is a helpful way of looking at how scientists give advice to policymakers. In Roger Pielke’s book, The Honest Broker, he suggests that there are four ways scientists can choose to engage in the policy process. First, they can act as a “pure scientist” who publishes papers, and even if their work has relevance to a policy issue, they leave it for others to find and use the results. Second, they can act as “science arbiters”, who answer specific factual questions posed by decision makers. Third, they can become an “issue advocate”, who decide for themselves on the “right” policy decision and become advocates for the “solution”, sometimes closing down the scope of choices available to policymakers. Finally, they can act as “honest brokers”, who aim to expand and clarify the scope of options and choices available to decision makers, stepping back, leaving it to the policy maker to use this evidence to decide what to do.

On the matter of these four ways, scientists might reflect on where they sit on particular issues when speaking with policy makers, journalists and even friends. Do they make up their minds about what should happen and advocate their version? Are they even aware when they, as Martin Rees puts it, are “acting as citizens”, or do they slip into territories that involve aspects beyond science and speak about them with the kind of authority they use when speaking about science?

Scientists get excellent training in how to be scientific — in logic, rational thinking and how to aim for objectivity. They don’t however get much training in reflecting on their behaviour or language, or really thinking through the boundaries of where scientific evidence comes up against other, murkier areas such as ethics and economics. Scientists rarely get training in how to give advice to policy makers. They may just be thrown into doing it, having observed how other scientists behave.

Pielke argues that on issues where there are high levels of uncertainty or high levels of disagreement the “honest broker” model will contribute both to better policy and to a healthy democracy. It is really up to elected representatives to make the decisions. Scientific evidence is a part of the evidence and context that needs to be considered, albeit an important part.

But I also think there are times when it is ok for scientists to become advocates. In an issue such as climate change, when the Bush administration and others were in denial that it was actually occurring and questioning whether humankind was contributing, there was, and still is, a key role for scientists to act as “advocates” — loudly and collectively. Many have been vocal, including David King, then the UK’s chief scientific advisor, who has claimed that climate change poses a bigger threat than that international terrorism. The main policy options about the issue were: deny, ignore or try to act.

Scientists have a crucial role when it comes to exploring possible routes to mitigating the effects of climate change, and to reversing, or at least reducing it. But if a scientist starts saying “so we must try to geoengineer the planet to combat climate change”, then they are beginning to take an advocacy role. Another territory where some scientists can act as “advocate”, having slipped into “citizen” territory, is the development of GM crops. The evidence that human population is expanding way beyond what current agricultural technologies can provide for is overwhelming, but concluding that a particular technology is the key answer is advocacy. A starting point of “some GM crops may be valuable in some cases” seems closer to being an honest broker.

Once a particular technology has been fixed on, it is too easy for scientists to back up their arguments saying, for example, that for economic reasons the UK must develop GM crops, without really addressing public concerns about impact on the environment or a desire to be able to choose what to eat. Many have made the point that we could “feed the world” right now, but for political and economic reasons, this just is not happening. And that those things should be addressed, rather than just going headlong for a single straight technological fix.

I agree with Rees, scientists do have a special responsibility to engage on policy issues. If your work is relevant, staying in the lab, acting as a “pure scientist” and not entering public discussions means that an important part of the evidence, and an important perspective, may be ignored. But scientists need to be more aware of and, importantly, more clear about when they are straying into speaking as citizens. They need to reflect on when they might be starting to advocate for particular solutions. It’s too easy for them to carry their cloak of authority into territories where evidence beyond the scientific is needed. In their training, scientists should be provoked into thinking about the way science advice is given and how they communicate with non-scientists. And perhaps most importantly, they need to explore with others the ethics, economic and social aspects around their work, so they understand better where the different boundaries lie.

Kathy Sykes is Professor of Sciences and Society at University of Bristol. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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5 Responses to Scientists Should Engage in Policy, But It’s a Balancing Act

  1. I don’t regard Pielke as expert in effective risk messaging.

    For a better example, let’s look back to the 1970′s: In the US there was enormous fears over nuclear war with the Soviet Union, we were pushing for nuclear treaties, but the threat and stress of a nuclear holocaust was relentless.

    Then local fire departs spoke up. I recall a PR campaign lead by professional organizations of firefighters – they produced powerful network commercials and full page newspaper ads, basically saying “in the event of nuclear war, don’t call your local fire department” Imagine having a firefighter look directly into the camera and say: “This is too much for us. Too big. Don’t expect us to rescue you”. The message shocked us – that this was bigger than a 911 call and that we should push government to fix it.

    Pretty clear. Worked nicely

    Climate science has been fully baked for years, and risk warnings from climate scientist have been actively suppressed for decades. (Hansen, NASA, Bush administration) We have long known the only spigot we control is CO2 emissions – we opened it up for 100 years, now it’s time for scientists to clearly state the danger and describe consequences… and maybe even add “Don’t ask us to deny science, don’t ask us to lie. We know of no way to halt it. It is bad, and all we can do is lessen harm by halting carbon combustion”

    Everything else is just soft-pedal apologizing. And the Pielkism of over-analyzing science and tepid engagement is almost part of the problem rather than solution.

    A house on fire does not mean one should engage in message design with the people inside. We seem to be stuck sniffing the smoke and wondering how the alarm bells should sound.

    Time to stop accepting shame for alarmism.

    • And in the face of extinction of many species on the planet, and threats that include human species – how is it that you can call for something that “will contribute both to better policy and to a healthy democracy” ?

      What are our priorities here?

  2. Climate science is not as relevant as the studies in abnormal psychology – denial and risk. Why do humans perceive and fail to perceive danger?

    Here is a different way to address it

    Or governments choose to ignore the warnings they are given (audio)

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    The problem with scientists engaging in advocacy and politics is that they lose their image of impartiality, and people judge what they say in the context of somebody advocating for a policy, not explaining the science.

    Stephen Schneider explained it well:

    “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.”

    (If you can be both, of course, it’s not a dilemma.)

    The trouble is, people know you’re making simplified, dramatic statements and hiding the uncertainties, and they therefore scale back the message by a certain margin to account for that. They no longer entirely trust you. And when they see things like ClimateGate, and advocate-science’s non-reaction to it, they assume the worst.

    In a way, Pielke is recommending that scientists stay out of policy precisely so that they can have an even greater influence on policy. The point is to preserve science’s credibility.

    A few other points:

    “…when the Bush administration and others were in denial that it was actually occurring and questioning whether humankind was contributing…”

    The Bush era policy on climate change was expressed in the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel resolution, and neither denies that it was happening or that humankind was contributing.

    “… it is too easy for scientists to back up their arguments saying, for example, that for economic reasons the UK must develop GM crops, without really addressing public concerns about impact on the environment or a desire to be able to choose what to eat.”

    Those particular public concerns have already been addressed, at length. GM crops generally have less impact on the environment than conventionally bred crops. The public already has the means to choose whether to eat it, on the understanding that it costs more to keep food non-GM, and they will need to pay a premium for it. It’s just like Kosher or Halal foods.

    People don’t oppose GM crops for any scientific reasons; but because of certain beliefs about industry, technology, progress, and nature. People fear the artificial.

    But scientists have to accept people’s right to feel like that. We hold freedom of belief as a basic human right, which includes the right to be wrong. The reason we have it is that personal certainty is no guarantee, majorities have been wrong before (including ones backed by scientists), and freedom of belief allows minority truths to try to make their case and overturn the prevailing paradigm – if they can. Or to quietly live their own lives in their own way, unoppressed and unpersecuted. Freedom of opinion and openness to challenge are how science progresses, too. To exclude them from science’s internal debate in the interests of political advocacy would be to sabotage our justification for trusting it, and the reason it works.

    Sadly, some scientists like Rees and King seem to have gone down just that route. This sort of thing does happen periodically, in both science and society, but eventually the contradictions always become too great and we have a clear out. The paradigm shifts. Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.

  4. In a book chapter published a few years back, I elaborated on Pielke’s Honest Broker typology to propose a few main principles by which scientists and their organizations can ethically and responsibly communicate with the public in polarized policy debates such as those over climate change and food biotechnology. See citation and link to the full HTML text and PDF of the chapter below.

    Nisbet, M.C. (2009). The Ethics of Framing Science. In B. Nerlich, B. Larson, & R. Elliott (Eds.). Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and Metaphorical Dimensions (pp 51-74). London: Ashgate.