A Seat at the Table: the Role of Scientists in Public Dialogue

It’s been a busy two weeks for science in the news media. There was the media blackout on the EPA and other federal agencies, the National Park Service going rogue on Twitter, a border wall with some serious ecological implications, and a potential withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, among others. All of this has precipitated a scientist’s march on Washington to protest the role of science in the new administration.

These events are an interesting twist, given that science was conspicuously absent from the conversation during the presidential election in 2016. Its prominence in the news cycle has strangely brought me right back to the words of one of my grad school advisors.

I remember it clearly, my advisor gently chiding me while he reviewed the first drafts of my manuscripts. Too much emotion. Subjective statements. Words with ambiguous meanings. Claims of things I hadn’t adequately proven. It took a lot of time and crafting to find my voice as a scientist, happening slowly, deliberately, and taking years.

Most importantly, he stressed the importance of understanding the difference between environmental research, environmental management, and environmental advocacy. There’s nothing wrong with any of these roles, he said, but it’s imperative to recognize the differences and understand what their place is when publishing research and managing ecosystems. You’re conducting the science, sharing the results, and perhaps helping to develop management protocols – but you’re not advocating for a pre-existing agenda, for blanket conservation, for arbitrary preservation. Or if you are, you’re doing it on your own time, outside of your formal organization.

Flash forward to today. As scientific issues get some long overdue airtime, how will we use our time in the spotlight? It would behoove the scientific community to take pause, reflect, and be thoughtful about our roles and responsibilities to the public. The public deserves to know what scientists’ research says, but also what its purpose is.

I say this because the reaction to the recent events has been swift and furious, particularly among scientists. But amid all the uproar, the lines between research, management, and advocacy are blurring. It doesn’t make those reactions wrong, but I’m compelled to ask: in these most extraordinary times, what is the role of scientists in research, management, and advocacy?

The Differences

If you’re less familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s a quick breakdown.

Research

The traditional role of environmental research is to investigate a question by testing a hypothesis: in other words, you think a thing may be happening, and you want to see if gathering data and analyzing that data supports or disproves that thing. This is done rigorously and methodically, all of which is reviewed independently prior to the publication of any kind of research. That review process is performed by the peers of those scientists, hence the name ‘peer review.’ By peers, I mean the top competitors and experts in any given field.

Peer-review is a grueling process that has perhaps the highest standard of fact checking in any form of publication that currently exists. This doesn’t make it perfect, though it’s beautifully self-correcting over time. It’s the most iron-clad method we have of separating things we can measure from things we think we’re observing. That’s powerful, awesome, and will always earn my immense respect. The most important litmus test in science is the quality of one’s data and the argument that extends from interpreting that data.

Management

Management exists to both produce literature and use existing literature to develop management plans for species, ecosystems, or regions, as well as methods for measuring the success of those plans. They also exist to help co-develop ways to measure things like the sizes of plant/animal populations or the health of ecosystems, and to enforce the rules and regulations that were established as part of any given management plan.

This sometimes includes stopping people from interacting with those species or ecoscapes. Management may also conduct and publish their own research, which is then subject to the same rigors I described earlier.

Advocacy

Typically, advocacy groups (think Greenpeace) have a central focus or issue around which they want to increase public attention and motivate people to act on that issue. They can use things like published research to gain attention, but can also take matters into their own hands by way of public demonstration, litigation, private donations, and multimedia – things they can do whether the primary research backs up those claims or not. For better or worse, advocacy attracts a lot of passionate people with a mix of academic and emotional attachments to their causes.

This emphasis on emotion does not make them wrong, but it does mean they’re playing with fire. Emotion is a powerful tool – the upside of the emotionally charged nature of advocacy is that it has brought a large number of valid issues into the public consciousness. On the other hand, the ways these issues are leveraged can sometimes blur the lines between research and propaganda, between facts and misinformation, and between presenting versus overstating research findings.

Where is Our Place?

My advisor taught me to search for the distinctions in these modes of engagement and to be aware of which one I was doing. An informed electorate is incredibly important, and so I hope we’ll all reflect on what we’re doing as a community as we gain traction in the political and cultural conversation.

So as the National Park Service goes rogue and as scientists march on Washington and demand that the results of climate change research be acknowledged and acted upon, I see those lines blurring. Maybe that is the right thing to do at this time – but I encourage all scientists (and non-scientists) to think carefully about when and where we want to cross over into being advocates, instead of sources, of research. We should act deliberately, with the knowledge that our actions will potentially have long-lasting ramifications for the perceived neutrality and independence of environmental research.

Non-scientists should be aware of the difference between scientists conducting research and scientists advocating; they should also consider that not all advocates are scientists, and may in fact have no scientific training whatsoever. In a world of “alternative facts,” it’s important not to let emotional appeals spur us to action because they sound like they’re on the right side of history. In other words, consider the source.

Going from being ignored at the school dance to being prom king/queen of the moment, it’s tempting to seize the opportunity, to shout loud and often from the microphone. As with the research we publish, our responses and public voice should be deliberate and measured.

This is not an argument that scientists should stay in their labs and do their research, nor is it a call to action for every scientist to be an advocate. But what is clear is that this is a critical juncture for scientists.

The need for an informed public is greater than ever – we can no longer afford to shout in black and white. Scientists can play a role in this, via advocacy or not, by identifying channels to the public to make their work palatable and comprehensible. That is, in fact, at the very heart of what I want to do here at A New Lens – to help translate environmental science and offer my own opinion on what actions the research should motivate.

If you’re a scientist, manager, or advocate, what’s your take on this issue? And if you’re a non-scientist, what do you view as some of the greatest public needs of the scientific community? What are your concerns? Leave a comment and let’s start the conversation.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: