by Judith Curry
The notion that a scientist is either an advocate or does nothing at all to shape policy is a false dichotomy that has muddied the debate about science and advocacy. – Scott and Rachlow
Scott, J Michael, & Rachlow, Janet L. (2011). Refocusing the debate about advocacy. Conservation Biology, 25(1), 1-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01629.x
The paper is unfortunately behind paywall, so here are the key excerpts:
The long-standing debate about whether conservation professionals should practice advocacy has been complicated, in part, because defining advocacy is challenging and controversial.
Although most people have a gestalt understanding of the concept, advocacy has been defined with many nuances. Advocacy is most simply defined as “the act or process of advocating or supporting a cause or proposal.” Lackey (2007) similarly defined policy advocacy as “active, covert, or inadvertent support of a particular policy or class of policies.”
Despite challenges in defining advocacy, leaders of professional scientific societies in the natural resource disciplines exhibit relative agreement about actions that constitute advocacy. We invited officers and board members who had served since 1985 in the SCB, Wildlife Society, and American Fisheries Society to participate in an on-line survey about advocacy. We received 64 responses out of 129 invitations from leaders of all three societies.
There was relative agreement that advocacy was associated with promoting a particular policy and that selective sharing of research results is advocacy. For example, sharing results of research only with groups or organizations with a common view on an issue was considered by most to represent advocacy, but sharing results with all interested parties was not perceived as advocacy.
Clearly, not all actions scientists might take related to policy fall under the umbrella of policy advocacy. In fact, there is a wide range of ways to engage in the policy process without advocacy. For example, scientists can work with decision makers to identify policy-relevant questions, conduct rigorous research in a transparent environment. They can publish results in refereed journals that clearly stipulate implications of the work for natural resources under different policy or management scenarios. Additionally, there are many ways scientists can more actively deliver their information and its implications to the full spectrum of interested parties, including the media, the public, nongovernmental organizations, and industry, for their use in testifying before legislators or other decision makers. All these activities increase the ability of science professionals and professional societies to inform and shape policy and promote the use of science in policy development. Such actions also increase an organization’s chance to be perceived by all participants as a resource for the best available science.
Our greatest strength as scientists and members of professional scientific societies is the quality of our research and its relevance to society. That is our unique contribution to informing policy decisions that influence natural resources. Scientists can leverage this strength when their information is used by others who are also participating in the discourse, but are doing so with a policy preference (e.g., nongovernmental organizations, advocacy groups, concerned citizens). Thus, our challenge is to deliver the results of our work and its policy implications to all interested parties and decision makers. When scientists stipulate a policy preference, particularly at the beginning of a process, they are aligning with a subset of the public and might be seen as having an agenda rather than being providers of the best available science.
By stating implications of research as if-then statements, scientists can make the policy implications of their work crystal clear. For example, the following statement makes policy implications explicit: If the goal is to maintain ecosystem function, then policy x or y will not accomplish this goal; however, policy z will do so with 95% probability. To be clear, scientists are best qualified to interpret implications of their research under different policies, but doing so is not advocacy if they evaluate policy rather than stipulate it (Fig. 1). This fine distinction is worth making.
JC comment: I find the definition and criteria presented here to be vastly preferable to the fuzzy ‘everyone is an advocate because they have values’ argument. There are some concrete guidelines presented here that make it easy for a scientist to assess whether or not they are behaving as an advocate. So, the question becomes whether this is the appropriate definition and criteria, particularly in context of the climate debate?
It is interesting to apply the criteria presented her to numerous scientists involved in the public debate. Who would you categorize as an advocate?