Citizens first, scientists second: The argument for advocacy

Attention, ecologists. Have you ever wondered how to reconcile the supposed objectivity of the scientific profession with the urge to speak up as an ecologist and say something about environmental protection? Or have you avoided the topic, thinking that advocacy for a cause would undermine your credibility as a scientist?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a new paper online in Conservation Biology (abstract only; subscription required), Michael Nelson, an environmental ethicist at Michigan State, and John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist at Michigan Technological University, get together to say that as citizens first and scientists second, scientists “have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities and in a justified and transparent manner.”

The authors  then go on to debunk the logic of many reasons not to advocate — and, interestingly, one reason why scientists should advocate (#4).

(1) Advocacy compromises the credibility of the scientist and the field of science as a whole

(2) Advocacy conflicts with the essential nature of science, which is to objectively observe phenomena and report facts in an impartial manner

(3) In a practical sense, advocacy simply takes too much time away from scientists’ real job of doing science

(4) Science and advocacy are both value-based processes, and are therefore alike.

The only two logically sound arguments that emerge, say the researchers, are the social harm that might result if scientists, who are the true experts, don’t advocate; and the fact that researchers are citizens first and scientists second, and therefore have an obligation to advocate. They write:

“According to this argument scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a  responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities and in a justified and transparent manner. Importantly arguments against science advocacy are valuable for offering insight about how one should or should not be an advocate, not whether one should advocate.”

That’s all well and good; they didn’t need to convince this blogger that scientists should advocate. But at the end of their paper they throw in an interesting twist:

“Broad participation, however, will undoubtedly result in disagreement among good scientists and in some scientists advocating in an unjustified and dishonest manner. Thus broad participation will substantially complicate the policy-making process.”

So even though they prove with logical arguments that scientists should advocate, here they say that if everyone advocated, mass confusion would result in the halls of our lawmaking bretheren, defeating the purpose of the exercise?  But, say the authors:

“Although this might seem undesirable, our goal here should not be simplicity but rather the betterment of society.”

It seems like a highly unlikely issue, that the world would have so many science advocates that the truth would be obscured.  So maybe it’s better, at least when the current issues — like climate change, infectious disease and invasive species are so complicated themselves – for scientists to have representatives who deliver a clear message. But then again, when will environmental problems ever be simple?

I welcome your thoughts.  Should scientists advocate?
Nelson, M., & Vucetich, J. (2009). On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01250.x

Author: Christine Buckley

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  1. Yes, advocate on. For all of the stated reasons and some yet to be discovered by advocating scientists.

  2. Scientists should feel free to participate in the political debate like other citizens on all issues with one exception. I am sceptical of scientists advocating when it comes to their own area of expertise.

    Scientists can inform but not advocate. Advocacy risks damaging the public perception of science and what’s worse distort the truth seeking process. I know of no political movement that does not frequently distort the truth in its advocacy and I do not want scientists to do that.

    The line between advocacy and information isnät always clear of course. But I think scientists should try to have the attitude that they present information to the policymakers and public and it is up to them what they do with it.

    It is important to realize that scientist can’t make “better” moral judgements than other people. Nor can be experts on all the relevant issues on any given subject. A enviromental scientists usually has no particular expertise when it comes to which policy measures are politically feasible or what their economic effects are or even which will actually help the environment. (A poorly thought out ban on certain pollutants might cause substitution of worse pollutants say. No amount of expertise in biology or chemistry can help determine whether that will happen.)

    There will be plenty of people advocating almost anything even without scientists participating.

  3. I think that scientists should feel free to advocate, especially in their area of expertise. Otherwise, are we saying that it is ok to advocate as long as you don’t know what you are talking about?

  4. scientists – being human and having grown-up with cultural influences just like our non-scientist peers – are just not 100% neutral and the sooner we scientists recognise this, the better

    all of us can endeavour to disentangle our own beliefs from facts and then why not advocate? we live here on this planet, it’s our duty to engage

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