by Judith Curry
Advocacy by scientists seems to be the issue of the week. What (if anything) constitutes responsible advocacy by scientists?
Several years ago, A AAS held a Workshop on Advocacy in Science, under the auspices of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program.
Two extensive papers were written by Workshop participants:
Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
Arizona State University
Nicholas H. Steneck
University of Michigan
Both of these papers are very good. A summary report was also prepared, excerpts:
Based on those meetings, Committee members and staff were able to derive the following observations that would eventually inform subsequent work:
- Defining advocacy is both important and elusive, as the term can mean quite different things to different people and institutions;
- Scientists are increasingly being encouraged by people inside and outside science to become engaged with the public policy process;
- A subset of scientists is already “doing” advocacy, with varying degrees of skill, enthusiasm, and support;
- Some younger scientists, including those in graduate school, are expressing increasing interest in how their work will affect the larger society, and are seeking guidance on how best to engage the policy process;
- There are few educational/training materials and venues for learning about and doing advocacy;
- There is also little ethical guidance on how to engage in “responsible advocacy”;
- There are few empirical studies in the literature on advocacy in science and what exists is mostly concentrated in a few disciplines.
In the public arena, a definition that generated wide agreement was that advocacy is attempting to influence a specific outcome, to tell an external stakeholder, “This is what you should do!” It is a deliberate, purposeful public expression of an opinion or point of view. In this understanding, it is using one’s scientific position and expertise to accomplish a specific policy goal, whether the advocacy is directed at the public or at a policymaker. Although not a popular view at the workshop, one participant likened it to a salesperson selling a product: in both instances you stress the data that support your opinion and disregard data that do not. An implication of this definition is that “science” and “advocacy” are clearly separable activities: When you “do” science, you investigate, report, explain, and interpret; when you urge a course of action, you are “doing” advocacy, not science.
With respect to advocating for policy, one view expressed was that it is one thing to bring scientific expertise to bear on an issue of public interest but altogether different to recommend specific legislation or a specific policy outcome. In the public’s mind, the latter might be considered “lobbying” and viewed negatively. Further, when scientists “cross the line” between advising and advocating, it can confuse both the science and the policy. However, after further consideration, even the distinction between advising and advocating became muddy. Sometimes expressing an opinion on a matter of public interest obviously points to a particular policy outcome, that is, the science and a specific policy are so close, the listener (the public) will not know the difference. Further, as someone noted, scientists might become embroiled in advocacy “accidentally,” as when they or others realize the results of their scientific research have crucial consequences.
Sarewitz described a situation in which scientific information and societal values become entangled. This led participants to note that advocacy is only troublesome when disputed values are central to the policy dilemma and the science is uncertain, and that scientists have to be careful not to try and “scientize” a policy debate when what is really at issue is values.
The science “trademark” has great value and is used by advocacy organizations, as in “science shows that….” Many workshop participants held the view that, paradoxically, when scientists themselves are perceived as advocates, their views are often discounted, even if they are being objective. Further, that discount can threaten the perceived legitimacy of the advocate’s field.
In addition to muddying the waters between science and policy making, workshop participants acknowledged another way that advocacy can be problematic for scientists because it poses the temptation of distorting or tainting the science or substituting a personal opinion for a scientific one. Most seriously, if scientists become advocates they risk losing their good name as scientists. One participant put it bluntly, “If you want to be seen as a scientist, act like a scientist.”
If the hallmarks of science are accountability, fairness, and honesty, then those traits may be incompatible with effective advocacy. Guidelines for scientists, such as codes of conduct, include the principles of honesty, accountability and fairness. When scientists communicate with the public, good practice requires being clear about uncertainties, presenting competing views or interpretations of data, and stating the limitations of the data you present. However, communicating is not necessarily advocacy. In fact, advocacy can best be thought of as a subset of communication, given the earlier definition of advocacy as urging a particular policy course.
Steneck’s guidelines for responsible advocacy:
- Limit science advocacy to your area(s) of expertise and be clear when you are presenting a personal opinion not based on your formal expertise or professional experience;
- Present information clearly and avoid making exaggerated claims;
- Be aware of any conflicts of interest – for example, financial interests that you or members of your family have or affiliations with advocacy organizations – and make them clear; 5
- Point out the weakness and limitations of your argument, including data that conflict with your recommendations;
- Present all relevant scientific data, not just that which supports a particular policy outcome;
- Be aware of the impact your advocacy can have on science; and
- Make clear when you are speaking as an individual scientist as opposed to acting as a representative of a scientific organization
Scientific societies are already playing an advocacy role, with most of that effort appearing to be advocacy for science. This advocacy includes measures that affect scientists directly, such as R&D funding for their own disciplines, as well as for other scientific disciplines, “elevating public policy discussions” by trying to make certain that science is included in policy deliberations, and gaining respect for scientists’ views. Additionally, societies can educate and prod policymakers to call on scientists for help in understanding complex technical issues.
Participants noted several ways in which the society as advocate has certain advantages. First, colleagues sometimes “look down their noses” at scientists who enter the public realm, and when scientists are on every side of an argument an atmosphere of personal attacks can be generated. Societies can provide cover for individual scientists by standing behind their opinions and recommendations. Second, in some policy advocacy, the involvement of a scientific society may reduce the appearance or reality of bias. Further, societies – particularly the larger ones – have an infrastructure and resources more conducive to skilled advocacy than do individual researchers. And, as one society representative said, “There’s something to the imprimatur of a society.” But is there? Are societies viewed as authoritative and trustworthy? Some participants suggested this may not always be the case, especially when they engage in overt advocacy on policy issues.
JC evaluation of RS, AGU and AMS statements
Limit science advocacy to your area(s) of expertise and be clear when you are presenting a personal opinion not based on your formal expertise or professional experience;
Consider how the three societies selected the panel to write the statements:
RS: Fellows of the Royal Society were appointed to prepare the document, and another group of Fellows reviewed the document. JC grade: A
AMS: Volunteers from the society effectively self-selected themselves to be on the committee. JC grade: C-
AGU: The AGU Council appointed the drafting committee, which by design included one skeptic (Pielke Sr). The expertise on the committee does not seem to match the topics in the statement: only a few experts on detection and attribution, and only a few experts on climate change impacts. JC grade: B-
Present information clearly and avoid making exaggerated claims;
RS: JC grade A.
AMS: JC grade B
AGU: JC grade D.
The AMS and particularly the AGU are downgraded owing the use of ‘urgent’, ‘imperative’ re the need for action in terms of CO2 mitigation.
Point out the weakness and limitations of your argument, including data that conflict with your recommendations;
RS: JC grade A- (explicitly lists the areas where knowledge is uncertain).
AMS: JC grade C (makes some mention of areas where science is uncertain)
AGU: D- (emphatic certainty; only mentions skeptic arguments so that they can emphatically dismiss them).
Present all relevant scientific data, not just that which supports a particular policy outcome;
RS: JC grade B+ (mentions natural variability)
AMS: JC grade C (doesn’t really mention the broader issues that influence climate)
AGU: JC grade D (seems to cherry pick the points to support a policy agenda)
Be aware of the impact your advocacy can have on science;
AGU: JC grade F. There seems to be a complete lack of awareness, as the AGU travels headlong (and blindly) into policy land
Make clear when you are speaking as an individual scientist as opposed to acting as a representative of a scientific organization
AGU: The statements of AGU Director Christine McEntee deserves comment here. McEntee’s background is nursing and public health, and before joining AGU she was CEO of the American Institute for Architects. McEntee is speaking out on climate change (in an advocacy role), wearing her AGU hat, in spite of the fact that she has no climate science expertise and it is doubtful that she paid this issue much attention prior to joining AGU a few years ago.
JC summary: Based upon my grading, RS gets a very high score, and AGU stands out as very poor among professional society statements in terms of responsible advocacy.
A moral obligation?
Jaime Jessop has an interesting post A sensitive issue and why advocacy is not a moral imperative. The punchline:
We may argue that, as human beings, scientists are morally obliged to communicate their findings to the general public. I wholeheartedly agree. Some of course, may be better in this role than others. I vehemently disagree that the form of this communication should be in advocating policy ‘solutions’ because this compromises their roles as scientists. What they should be doing, if they are able, especially in the contentious field of climate change, is communicating honestly and impartially their actual research such that it is accessible to the public and then letting the public decide for themselves whether the policy solutions advocated by politicians, green groups and renewables industry executives, justify the measures being taken. This is the role of the truly responsible scientist; no more, no less.
Google Hang Outs
Kathy Zhang | Sustainability Media Lab | Student at Columbia University
Alexandra Boghosian | Sustainability Media Lab | Researcher at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
The issue of policy advocacy by scientists is looming in importance for the climate community. Given the overall lack of effectiveness of climate policy advocacy by climate scientists to date, scientists should reconsider what the heck they are doing in this regard. The irresponsibility with which the AGU is proceeding with its advocacy has the potential to seriously harm not only AGU’s image and credibility, but also the science itself.
Policy advocacy by scientists can in principle be done effectively and responsibly. In practice, too many scientists, and worse yet professional societies, are conducting their advocacy in a manner that is neither effective or responsible.
JC advice to scientist-advocates: take some time to understand the pitfalls of advocacy, learn about the policy process, and make sure you understand what is considered responsible advocacy.