Scientists can’t be advocates, and other myths

Debunking common misconceptions about the role of science in policy

Dec 21, 2018 · 6 min read
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By Jane Zelikova and Rory Jacobson

We spent an incredible week at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual conference held last week in our nation’s capital. More than 20,000 scientists from across the globe came together at this one-of-a-kind conference, where attendees can hear talks about microbes and protein evolution just down the hall from a deep dive into space weather.

This is the first year the conference has ever been held in D.C., making it a rare opportunity for scientists in attendance to reach out to their elected officials and advocate for science. But willingness among scientists to perform advocacy tends to run up against the commonly-held belief that science and activism are mutually exclusive.

The perceived tension between science and advocacy was addressed in several AGU sessions, with high profile speakers like John Holdren (former science advisor to President Obama) encouraging conference attendees to use their scientific expertise and their voice as members of a democratic society to advocate for science. With almost 100 public affairs sessions — from “PA53A: Native Science to Action: How Indigenous Perspectives Inform, Diversify, and Build Capacity in Environmental Science and Policy” to “PA42B: Science to Inform Climate Resilience and Adaptation Decision-Making and Policy” — there was no shortage of presentations on actionable and policy-relevant science.

Personally, these sessions were inspiring and validated our chosen paths to work at the intersection of science, policy, and advocacy. With so many AGU sessions and presentations about public engagement, we couldn’t help but revisit some of the common misconceptions about science and public engagement. Drawing on the specific talks we had the chance to hear at AGU, we set out to debunk the following myths:

Myth #1: Scientists engaging in advocacy efforts lose credibility within and outside the science community. Science (tasked with objectivity about the world) and advocacy (linked to values about what the world should be) are incompatible;

Myth #2: Scientists must maintain sharp boundaries between science and its application (policy), because political engagement leads to biased scientific work/outcomes; and

Myth #3: Scientists are not trusted by the general public, and their deep expertise makes them less effective at communicating broadly.

During the AGU session “PA022: Engaged scientists: Personal and Professional Climate Action by Climate Change Researchers,” put together by the “Engaged Scientists” initiative at the University of Colorado, Harvard University historian Dr. Naomi Oreskes challenged the idea that scientists lose credibility when taking strong political stances, citing historical examples from earlier in the century. Nuclear physicists spoke out against nuclear proliferation, arguing that as physicists they had a uniquely vivid appreciation of the damage nuclear weapons could wreak. Similarly, climate scientists sounded the alarm about climate change, including the causes and mechanisms and the implications of burning fossil fuels. Dr. Oreskes argued that scientists’ unique expertise and knowledge position them better than most to discuss clear and present dangers, whether from nuclear war or climate change. Indeed, as climate scientists, we can say with confidence that humanity must control GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, a logical conclusion rooted in our scientific research and expertise (that is called epistemic proximity — the relevance of someone’s expertise to the topic of advocacy).

In the same AGU session, Dr. John Kotchner shared results from a recent study examining how a climate change scientist’s communications and advocacy on Facebook affect perceptions of their credibility and trustworthiness. It shows that scientists have latitude to engage in many forms of climate advocacy and that, in some cases, advocacy can increase their public credibility.

When we don’t speak up, it is assumed that we do not care.

Taking this a step further, Dr. Shahzeen Attari pointed to her recent work, demonstrating that climate scientists’ transparency in regard to their efforts to mitigate their own carbon emissions actually increases credibility in the public eye. In other words, by “practicing what they preach,” climate scientists not only improve their public credibility but also inspire action, predicated on their willingness to share some concrete actions the public can take to help address climate change.

So if scientists’ public engagement and advocacy does not affect their credibility, what are scientists really worried about? Dr. Oreskes suggested that scientists are primarily concerned about losing credibility with their colleagues. However, she noted that there are few historical cases of scientists losing their credibility with colleagues because of advocacy. Dr. Oreskes suggested that we as a scientific community must recognize that we have an obligation to share our expertise and give our colleagues not only latitude but full support for their public engagement.

“As someone who has spent 15 years studying climate change, I can absolutely relate to Dr. Oreskes’ sentiments that if one spends their life in the weeds of climate science, that person better have an opinion about it.” — Jane Zelikova

Science has always been political, regardless of whether scientists are politically engaged. This is because science is governed by the needs and ideas of the society at large and subject to society’s political will. The majority of scientists value public engagement and communication, and public confidence in science and scientists is much stronger than popular debates about GMOs and vaccines might make you think. In fact, even when ideology is taken into account, scientists are still more trusted than industry leaders, the news media, and elected officials.

There is a compelling reason, then, for scientists to provide expertise where it is relevant in the political process. In “PA022: Engaged scientists,” Samantha Lichtin shared her experience working in the Colorado General Assembly, where she is one of the only scientists to engage with state legislators directly. She noted that, when accessibility is assumed, inaction is considered intentional — in others words, when we don’t speak up, it is assumed that we do not care. She also noted that the majority of state legislators do not have staff, especially science advisors, so they rely on outside support to bring bills to the floor and vote on issues where scientific expertise is critical. Yet few if any scientists engage with their local legislators. Scientists assume legislators know they are just an email or phone call away, while legislators assume that if citizens (including scientists) have a stake in the issue, they will make their voices heard. Both assumptions are wrong.

In the field of carbon removal, experts have the opportunity to constructively share the urgent and complementary nature of CDR as a vital step to mitigating climate change, alongside traditional mitigation approaches. This requires getting to know our elected officials at the local, state, and federal level, and building relationships — policymakers need to know us, not just our work.

There are ample examples of stellar and trusted science communicators, people who can distill complex ideas (especially about uncertainty) and root their communication in shared values. Scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, Kate Marvel, and Michael Mann are not only leading in their respective climate science fields, but are also innovative and trusted communicators. Science communication has become a coveted skill, and AGU sessions like “WS14: Storyboarding Your Science: Creating Engaging, Effective Communication” address the need to build and support a new generation of effective science communicators.

In the carbon removal field, scientists can play a vital role in advocating for R&D and responsible deployment of carbon removal solutions, while remaining policy agnostic. Their advocacy will require the ability to effectively communicate, a skill that many scientists in carbon removal are cultivating. Look no further than Jennifer Wilcox, Roger Aines, and Julio Friedmann for exemplary science communication.

  • Scientists can and should speak about science in the public (but take into account epistemic proximity).
  • Scientists’ credibility does not suffer from advocacy or political engagement.
  • Scientists are trusted by the public, and communicating the perils of climate change and the potential solutions is our job.
  • Science communication around climate should be rooted in values. And science has some pretty great values — honesty, curiosity, collaboration, humility, and civility in discourse, to name a few.

We came away from AGU reinvigorated to do our work, to advocate for science-informed leadership, and to encourage our colleagues to use their voices for science and, with their scientific expertise, for the public good.

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