SCIENTISTS AS ADVOCATES
Aaron Schreiber –Stainthorp 2/17/14
1) As environmental groups and activists work to promote action on climate change and other environmental problems, scientists are increasingly asked to play more prominent roles in public life, as communicators, policy advisors and/or as advocates. Drawing on readings and discussion in class, discuss the different roles that scientists and their organizations can play relative to engaging the public and policymakers, providing specific examples. Discuss the advantages, trade-offs or risks to each role and how the role chosen by a scientist often relates to both their personal values and outlook but also their institutional or organizational affiliation.
The knowledge gap between the scientific community and the general public has always existed. Public opinion holds scientists in very high regard and overall scientists are one of the most trusted professions in America. Most citizens and policy makers say they support making decisions based on science. However, although much of our culture embraces scientific advances in consumer electronics, we have a difficult time identifying how science should and can inform public policy.
Science is frequently viewed as a relatively static and straightforward process when in fact science can be complicated, messy and constantly unfolding. Scientists have traditionally been thought of as non-partial, objective researchers. However, scientists are also citizens and as experts in a subject may feel compelled to advocate for a particular course of action given their specialized knowledge as a scientist or their personal values as an individual. This paper will explore what roles and responsibilities scientists have in steering policy makers and communicating with the public.
Science is supposed to be value free, or at least researchers are supposed to be impartial and unbiased so they do not steer the results of their work towards a particular outcome. Humans are not value free. In fact we care very much about our values and we rely on them in individual and societal decision-making. Andrew Revkin describes this difference as the “is” of science –the facts and probabilities – and the “ought” – determined by individual values, feelings and ideology. We have also seen this reflected in the fact that there are a number of issues that are hotly debated in our culture where more scientific knowledge has not created broad public consensus on how to shape policy. In fact research shows people can become more polarized as they receive more scientific information because individuals can latch on to information that helps support their beliefs.
In this context the role of the scientist becomes more complicated. Increasingly, environmental problems, most notably climate change, have intensified the public debate around policy decisions and put pressure on scientists to communicate the science and to comment on both possible outcomes and...