Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Scientific Spokespeople

On Monday, John Tierney of the New York Times had an interesting piece on scientists as advocates. I've included some commentary below, but would really like to hear what you think of this piece. Full article available here.
Most researchers ... like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.
Neither of those two roles mentions scientists as proactive advocates, which seems remiss since we know they exist.
“Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics,” Dr. Pielke says. “So they engage in what I call ‘stealth issue advocacy’ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones.”
Which can be an easy trap to fall into, especially when one political group tends to be more receptive to scientific arguments than another. All the same, I don't believe the majority of scientists intentionally do this.
... scientists could do more good if, instead of discrediting rivals’ expertise, they acknowledge political differences and don’t expect them to be resolved by science. Instead of steering politicians to a preferred policy, [they] would use their expertise to expand the array of technically feasible options.
This is a huge issue. Scientists themselves fight progress when they push against positions or ideas that aren't 100% proven. It reminds me of an episode of the West Wing (The Hubbert Peak) where representatives from different alternative energy industries meet with Josh and basically debunk the value of each other's energy sources (solar, water, wind, etc.). I appreciate that good research involves proving what things don't work as often as proving what does, but from time to time, finding common ground and agreeing on something (anything!) would be better for the greater scientific community.
Yet research into this strategy has received little financing in past budgets or the new stimulus package because it doesn’t jibe with the agenda of either side in the ...debate.
There will always be some level of politics in funding (and publication of research for that matter), because any governing body is going to have priorities. Anyone who has a brilliant plan for fixing that structure should definitely let the world know!

For a different take on this article, check out the Knight Science Journalism Tracker post.

This is Part 1 of the New Voices series on being a spokesperson for science. In Part 2 of this series, we'll cover some gold standards for being a successful spokesperson for any issue.

1 comment:

  1. There's been some fire in the blogosphere over the article discussed here. We looked specifically at the communication and advocacy angle presented in the piece, but there are others at Climate Progress who have reviewed the scientific specifics. It's worth a read.