Pondering the authority of science

This post contributed by Piper Corp, ESA Science Policy Analyst

Who says we have to listen to scientists? When President Obama vowed in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place,” where exactly was he talking about? The thou-shalts and self-evident truths on which Americans base so many decisions have little to say about consulting sound science. Still, though science rarely plays a significant role in US policies, it garners a tremendous amount of respect.

John Marburger, who served as Science Advisor to the President during the George W. Bush Administration, focused on this question of scientific authority during part of his keynote speech at a recent DC workshop on usable science. Riffing on sociologist Max Weber’s three classes of authority (rational [legal], traditional [moral], and charismatic), Marburger suggested that scientific authority, having “no intrinsic authoritative value,” is fundamentally charismatic. According to Weber, charisma is:

a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

Indeed, science achieves a level of objectivity and reliability far beyond that of everyday reasoning. It carries with it the promise of a methodical and repeatable process and, as such, integrity. The result, though, is that in public culture, science is primarily a pathway to facts. Scientific expertise, in other words, has been reduced to the results section. But is the scientific process entirely devoid of values and subjectivity? Not at all. While we’ve come to define rigorous science by the mechanisms used to ensure impartiality – peer review, quantitative and statistical analyses— even the most punctilious researcher must make decisions based on values: what to study, how to study it, how to talk about it.

Who has the authority to make these decisions? The intuitive answer is, of course, the scientist, and when the goal of research is to advance knowledge within a particular field, there is no one more apt for the task. But a great deal of research—including basic research—seeks to build knowledge that is useful to society. And this is where scientific expertise reaches its limits: usable science is as dependent on the user as it is on the scientist.

So what exactly is usable science? At first glance, it suggests a shift in focus from questions to answers, making many dismiss it as applied research, simply rebranded. But as the workshop’s expert panel pointed out, it’s not a matter of presenting results in a useful manner or applying science to answer specific questions; it’s a matter of making choices about research, process, and project design in a way that is mindful of what decision makers need to know. Put another way:

Scientific research inevitably leads to more questions, expanding the possibilities for research. But the progress of knowledge within a particular scientific discipline (such as hydrology or ecology) is not necessarily linked to real-world problems (such as drought or species loss). For example, an incremental advance in the skill of a groundwater model may be of interest to hydrologists in the field; but that advance may not translate into any additional utility for water managers and others dealing with water scarcity issues. Producing science for decision making requires recognizing the differences between supporting research valued by the discipline itself, and supporting research for the purpose of solving a particular problem.

(from Usable Science: A Handbook for Science Policy Decision Makers, a new publication featured at the workshop)

Usable science is as much about policy needs-informed science as it is science-informed policy. Stakeholders, then, become co-authors in a way, providing their own kind of expertise on how science will metabolize as public knowledge.

There is a danger here, of course. Blending these different forms of expertise can erode scientific integrity, resulting in findings or responses that are no longer empirically justified, but nevertheless retain their authority. Marburger discussed several instances from his time in Washington, DC when science was used as a way to rationalize a course of action that decision makers intuitively believed to be right. The climate debate is an excellent current example, with both sides focusing on the scientific consensus or perceived lack thereof. Another risk—losing necessary complexity when communicating science to a non-expert audience—is equally problematic. Ecosystem service markets, though critical in sustainability efforts, will impose a false appearance of linearity on ecosystems, a simplification that could present a significant obstacle in conveying ecological complexity to the public. Elsewhere in the sciences, findings from research into the workings of the mind are appearing in popular publications as disconcertingly conclusive.

Still, when efforts to address national and global challenges could so clearly benefit from scientific input, usable science demands the community’s attention and commitment.  So as a growing number of scientists vie for a seat at the policy table, perhaps they also should pull up a chair for key stakeholders at theirs.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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  1. “Blending these different forms of expertise can erode scientific integrity, resulting in findings or responses that are no longer empirically justified, but nevertheless retain their authority.”

    I would like to think that this should not be the mindset of anyone. Yes, some part of society might think that once you bridge policy and stakeholder’s demands for usable science with scientists, this erosion of integrity will occur. I would like to argue that there are some of us scientists that will not allow degrading our scientific integrity just because we will collaborate with others not in the scientific field, such as stakeholders, when pursuing usable science goals. On the other hand, standing firm, just as the IPCC and the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit did during their constant attacks, they show an example of what type of scientists exist: those that are willing to collaborate and provide usable information, offering a space and time to anyone that would like to have a conversation, without giving in to global pressures or scandals.

    And yes, I ultimately agree with you that this growing trend of seating in each others tables will drive us into a a more intelligent and usable construction of science methods and solutions.

    PS Regarding the charisma definition, if someone has at least said once that I have charisma, should I add it to my CV under divine skills? jajaja Good Friday post!

  2. As a retired oceanographer from the Fisheries Lab in Woods Hole, Ma., I found that converting scientific data into information useful for policy makers and multiple constituents (environmentalists; animal rights advocates; saltwater anglers and commercial fishermen/women) was a major challenge when I worked on the New England Fishery management Council’s Habitat Plan Development Team. It is very difficult to communicate technical information like stock assessments and models of fishing effects on essential fish habitat (EFH) to a majority of our constituents and many members of the Fishery Management Councils (FMCs) which provide advice to NOAA Fisheries on Total Allowable Catches (TACs). The Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) address both the TACs and measures required to protect EFH. The technical models used by fishery scientists make it difficult to incorporate natural history information and anecdotal observations from those out on the water.

    A number of programs have been developed to use fishing vessels as research platforms in conjunction with scientists from academia to study specific issues (like tagging fish to better understand population structure or conducting studies of the effects of fishing on particular types of EFH). Unfortunately these cooperative research projects occur at different spatial/temporal scales than the Bottom Trawl Surveys (BTS) employed by NOAA Fisheries to develop stock assessments for large regions (Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, Southern New England and Mid-Atlantic Bight). The BTS employs stratified, random sampling approaches to estimate fish biomass and patterns in distribution/abundance over time which differs from the experience of the fishing industry which goes where the fish are abundant and utilizes localized populations of fish in the areas open to harvesting. Fisheries are regulated under the Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act.

    Environmentalists and animal rights activists have an entirely different set of concerns. These include sustainable harvesting; protection of ocean biodiversity from fisheries harvesting and climate change; conservation of EFH from mobile fishing gear; reducing incidental take of sea turtles, marine mammals and seabirds by stationary fishing gear; restoration of depleted fish populations (especially Apex Predators); etc. Many of these constituents are focused on the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act and the charismatic marine megafauna protected by these legislative acts. It is often difficult to reconcile fisheries harvesting with the conservation/restoration of protected species and natural trust resources.

    Thus it is not surprising that the diverse constituencies and general public find it difficult to reconcile the fisheries science with the variety of management approaches used for living marine, protected and natural trust resources. A number of coastal residents sense that our oceans are in a degraded state from a variety of human stressors (fisheries harvesting; climate change; eutrophication; invasive species; loss of habitat form population growth and development in coastal watersheds; etc.), but they have no idea what the solutions are. Many of the recent state/federal efforts on marine spatial planning and adaptive, ecosystem-based management seek to develop integrated strategies to address these multiple human stressors which occur over a variety of spatial/temporal scales in the ocean. Since the regulation of fisheries is exempted from these ocean planning endeavors, it is hard for me to see how these new initiatives will provide the answers. This problem will be exacerbated as we develop large scale renewable energy projects in the ocean in addition to traditional uses, such as transportation, military training, oil and gas drilling, recreation, sediment dredging, historical preservation, aquaculture, etc.

    Multiple uses in the same ocean space will require better dialog between government policy makers/regulators; diverse constituents and users; the wider public which owns these public bottom lands and academic scientists. Some type of ocean zoning scheme will need to emerge from this dialog and there will need to be buy-in from diverse interests and governmental agencies with different mandates. This dialog has just begun, but has a long way to go to achieve success.

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