Science Advocacy

Scientists and Advocacy

Like many scientists today, I often feel the need to speak out when I see decisions being made which are based on little or no science, have no rationale besides simply the generation of dollars, and which are likely to have deleterious impacts on the environment. Furthermore, I am also deeply distressed by the general lack of understanding of science amongst the public, the apparent disconnect between the services provided by ecosystems and the increasing resource demands of a growing human population, the low participation in science programs in the schools, and the overall repression of science by our government, including the muzzling of government scientists. How do I speak to these issues while still maintaining my integrity as a scientist?

In attempting to answer this question, I did what any good researcher should do - I reviewed the literature. This quickly turned up quite an amount of material. Clearly, this question has been asked by many scientists working at many different levels and in many different positions. So, to start this quest for wisdom, I will quote some thoughts from other scientists on the role of scientists as advocates:

"As we argue in our Conservation Biology paper, citizens in a democracy have a moral obligation to actively promote within their society that which they are justified in thinking is right or good and to actively opposing that which they are justified in thinking is wrong or bad. Consequently, because they are citizens, every scientist has an obligation to be just and transparently honest advocates. Societies behave unethically when they expect or encourage their citizens to abdicate their privileges and responsibilities as citizens without adequate justification. When scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject a fundamental aspect of their citizenship. Rejecting one's responsibility as a citizen is unethical. An important part of this, however, is the manner in which scientists, as citizens, are obligated to be advocates: in a justified and transparent manner. We have too often seen scientists, and others, not advocating in this manner."

Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, referring to his paper "On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How" in "Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?" by Matthew C. Nisbet.

"Responsible advocacy and popularization are not, in my view, oxymoronic — but it takes discipline to minimize trouble. Scientists will never succeed in pleasing everyone, especially since many continue to think scientists should stay out of the public arena. But if we do avoid the public arena entirely, then we merely abdicate … to someone else - someone who is probably less knowledgeable or responsible. In my view, staying out of the fray is not taking the "high ground"; it is just passing the buck."

Stephen H. Schneider, Stanford-based climate scientist

Scientists have been concerned about their roles as reasearcher, citizen, and advocate for as long as scientists have been seen as "wise advisors". This is a heavy burden - how to speak the truth and provide wisdom on the application of the truth to different scenarios, while remaining objective and not being seen as taking political sides. This is further complicated by the many agencies which see the truth as counter to their purposes, and thus attempt to muzzle the scientists who speak the truth, or distort the truth to meet their own objectives.

Many scientists are wary of the term advocacy. Traditionally, scientists have been reluctant to become involved in advocacy for a variety of reasons, including the amount of time that public education or advocacy can take away from their professional responsibilities, their lack of skill in the nonscientific arena, and their concern that their credibility as scientists will be challenged. There has been a great deal of debate among scientists and others regarding the impact of public advocacy by scientists; however, this debate often oversimplifies the term advocacy, thereby missing the wide range of possible activities and engagement of scientists in policy and management (Lach et al. in "Advocacy and Credibility of Ecological Scientists in Resource Decisionmaking: A Regional Study", 2003). Professional advocacy occurs when scientists use the results of their research to try to influence policy or management actions. Most of the controversy surrounding scientific advocacy centers on professional advocacy. However, while professional advocacy is important, advocacy in a broad sense includes other matters that are equally important, such as advocating for science, for ecosystem services, and for the natural world (Brussard and Tull in "Conservation Biology and Four Types of Advocacy", 2006).

Various researchers have proposed four models for professional advocacy (Rivers and Hoberg in "Should Scientists be Advocates? The Case of Dr. James Hansen", 2009):

  1. Traditional model - science is separate from politics with the expectation that scientists should put forth objective data when pertinent without further involvement in the policy process (Lach et al. in "Advocacy and Credibility of Ecological Scientists in Resource Decisionmaking: A Regional Study", 2003).
  2. Science communication - there is a distinction between science and politics, but scientists should be involved in interpreting and explaining their findings to both policy makers and the public (Mills and Clark in "Roles of research scientists in natural resource decision-making", 2001).
  3. Expert advocacy model - scientists should communicate their research with an ethical obligation to act as advocates (Mills and Clark in "Roles of research scientists in natural resource decision-making", 2001). Advocacy in this form is defined as the process of informing policy makers, managers, and the general public about issues that arise in one's area of expertise (Brussard and Tull in "Conservation Biology and Four Types of Advocacy", 2006). This model holds that scientists are qualified to be involved in decision-making processes, but it deems advocacy for specific policy preferences as inappropriate (Lackey in "Science, Scientists, and Policy Advocacy", 2007).
  4. Political advocacy - a scientist advocates a position beyond their core area of scientific expertise. Thus, the arguments may "sound like science, read like science, are presented by people who cloak themselves in the accouterments of science but who are actually offering nothing but policy advocacy masquerading as science" (Lackey in "Science, Scientists, and Policy Advocacy", 2007).

These models are ordered in terms of degree of "risk" to the scientist. I think most of us have no issues with the first model, have probably engaged in the second model, are uncomfortable with the third model, and would definitely recommend avoiding the fourth model. Wherever each of us feels that we fit on this spectrum, I think the important point is that science-based advocacy is complex, and that all scientists must take care to advocate in a transparent and appropriate manner. That being said, given that advocacy covers a wide range of activities and can occur at many levels, I don't think that we should be asking the question of whether to advocate or not. Rather, to quote Nelson and Vucetich ("On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How", 2008), "We suggest scientists expend their efforts to better understand what constitutes appropriate advocacy and spend less effort pondering whether they should advocate."

Many scientists may feel that the whole issue of advocacy leaves them floundering in deep water with little guidance as to how to proceed. However, in fact, much thought has been given to this matter, and a number of guidelines exist outlining scientists' responsibility to society and appropriate use of advocacy. The 2010 Singapore Statement on Research Integrity sets out some global principles for responsible research, which can be summed up as follows (Steneck in "Responsible Advocacy in Science: Standards, Benefits, and Risks"):

Code of conduct for science

  1. Be honest, accountable, fair and a good steward
  2. Accept responsibility for the trustworthiness of science

Guidelines for public communication

  1. Limit communication to area(s) of expertise
  2. Present information accurately and in clear, understandable terms
  3. Disclose interests
  4. Point out weaknesses and limitations
  5. Mention opposing scientific views

Furthermore, the International Council for Science (ICSU) report on Freedom, Responsibility and Universality of Science includes a comprehensive list of responsibilities to society (Steneck in "Responsible Advocacy in Science: Standards, Benefits, and Risks"):

Community responsibilities to society

  1. Responsibility to contribute to the wealth of shared human knowledge and experience
  2. Responsibility to generate, and promote the use of, relevant science to improve human welfare and sustainable development
  3. Responsibility to try to ensure the benefits and minimize the potential dangers of applications of science
  4. Responsibility to support good, evidence based, policy-making
  5. Responsibility to promote public engagement in science
  6. Concern for the greater common good

Individual responsibilities to society

  1. Upholding the Principle of Universality and its inherent values of openness, equity and non-discrimination
  2. Respect for human rights, animals and the environment
  3. Acknowledging scientific risk and uncertainty
  4. Being accountable in any advisory capacity
  5. Communicating responsibly and honestly
  6. Placing societal benefits before the pursuit of personal profit

I think we could all benefit by following guidelines such as these, and it would be difficult to find fault in any advocacy that was carried out under these principles. Finally for those who have taken the big step, and have engaged in advocacy, there was a set of "tips for science advocacy" published in Nature (Nature. 2008, 453:662-3 as quoted in Steneck in "Responsible Advocacy in Science: Standards, Benefits, and Risks"):

Tips for science advocacy

  1. Know your audience. Communicate your science in a clear, concise but intelligent manner.
  2. Consider other implications aside from just the budgetary — how should the science initiatives be prioritized?
  3. Recognize the perceptions of different fields and disciplines — for example, some politicians have a negative view of scientists associated with environmental groups.
  4. Be aware that explicit advocacy activities, especially if allied with a certain political party, could cause some tension with colleagues who disagree.
  5. Be careful when reaching outside of your area of expertise. Don't be afraid to state the limits of your knowledge on a subject.
  6. Consider advocating through a science society that knows the issues.
  7. Recognize that a full-time career move to advocacy could affect your prospects for returning to research.
  8. Recognize that other factors, such as values, jobs and economics, play into science policy. Laws rarely grow out of scientific evidence alone.

With that advice, I will leave you to ponder the role of scientists in advocacy while I do a little advocating myself!

To Advocate or Not to Advocate - Is That the Question?". BioNews Volume 23 Number 2.

Musings from the Editor, BioNews

"Is Science Being Muzzled in Canada?". BioNews Volume 21 Number 3.

"A Tale of PNCIMA". BioNews Volume 21 Number 4.

"Science Literacy - Why Should Biology Professionals Care?". BioNews Volume 22 Number 1.

"Our Times". BioNews Volume 22 Number 2.

"What I Did on My Summer Vacation". BioNews Volume 22 Number 3.

"The Connection Between Melting Ice, Earthquakes, and Bats - Strange Meanderings by a Wondering Scientist". BioNews Volume 23 Number 1.

"The Tale of the Wolf and the Coyote - A Parable for the Not So Young". BioNews Volume 23 Number 2.

"Navel Gazing". BioNews Volume 23 Number 3.

CBC Radio

"Oceanographer's career at risk because of Fisheries Act changes". Daybreak North, Friday June 1, 2012.

Changes to the Fisheries Act could mean a career change for those working to protect fish habitats. Barb Faggetter is an oceanographer with Ocean Ecology in Prince Rupert who will be directly affected by the changes. She sat down with Carolina de Ryk at Seahorse Trading Company in Prince Rupert to explain why.

"Tsunami Drift". Daybreak North, Friday June 22, 2012.

In 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan. Now, debris from that disaster is washing up on the shores of Haida Gwaii and the northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. All week, Daybreak North's George Baker put together this series on the consequences of this happening.

Part 1

Part 2

"Oceanographer says Haida Gwaii iron project has more risk than reward". Daybreak North, Thursday October 18, 2012.

In a controversial move, roughly 100 tonnes of iron-laden dust was dumped into the ocean in the world's largest geo-engineering experiment ever. Defenders say it will help bring back salmon populations, but critics say it is environmentally risky. Barb Fagetter is an oceanographer based in Prince Rupert. She spoke with Leisha Grebinski.

"Oceanographer from Prince Rupert says iron dumping too risky". BC Almanac, Thursday October 19, 2012.

Barb Faggetter, an independent Oceanographer and principal with Ocean Ecology says the scientific community has never done an ocean fertilization experiment anywhere close to the one done by Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation.


"Ocean Ecology Response to Potential Amendments to Section 35 of the Fisheries Act". Letter to The Honourable Keith Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

"Public comments on the Pacific Northwest LNG Project". Letter to Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in response to the Pacific Northwest LNG Project.