Science Advocacy: Speaking Up For (and About) Science

By Rebecca Cerio

Science is, at its core, a search for knowledge.  We want to know, and thus we study, experiment, discover, and publish.  However, does our responsibility as citizens stop there?  Should scientists be doing more to assure that science is disseminated, understood, and used appropriately in decision-making?

Everyone agrees that science literacy is important.  A science-savvy society can better compete in the world economy, make better health care decisions, and more meaningfully debate about public policy issues.  However, the fascinating and very complete NSF Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 report confirms that “many Americans do not give correct answers to questions about basic factual knowledge of science or the scientific inquiry process.”  The US population’s science marks definitely need improvement.

How can we, as scientists, help?  And should we?

Advocacy: The Scientist’s Place in Policy?
Should scientists be involved in public policy?  The NSF SEI:2010 suggests that the public’s answer is a resounding “yes!”.  Scientific leaders enjoy some of the highest public confidence levels and topped the list of those who should have the most influence on specific science-based policy issues such as global warming.  The public has a favorable and high opinion of scientists, and they want to hear our opinions.

Nonetheless, there is some controversy.  Nelson and Vucetich wrote a wonderful essay (PDF version) in which they logically break down various published arguments for why scientists should not be advocates.  Nelson and Vucetich find all of these arguments logically lacking in various ways.  They conclude that such arguments do not give good reasons not to advocate, but instead show us how we should advocate.  Scientists should, Nelson and Vucetich argue, advocate in a justified and transparent manner while making full use of their knowledge for the good of society.

In fact, one particular argument for scientist advocacy holds up under ethical scrutiny:  since scientists have mastered knowledge that most citizens have not–and since they are citizens first and scientists second– they have a moral responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities.  Nelson and Vucetich acknowledge that advocacy can carry some undesirable side effects (ie, time spent, backlash from peers, threats from those with opposing views, etc.)  Nevertheless, doing the right thing is hardly ever painless, and we can’t be excused from our moral responsibilities simply because they incur some hardship.

Likewise, our society is not excused from using scientific information to inform policy just because it is complicated.  Nelson and Vucetich predict that an increase in scientist advocacy will inevitably result in disagreement between the very scientists doing the advocating.  This, in turn, will complicate the policy-making process.  However, though this may seem counterproductive, Nelson and Vucetich point out, “…our goal here should not be simplicity but rather the betterment of society.”

And isn’t that what science is about, as well?

What do you think?  Should scientists advocate for more science funding, or on particular policy issues?  What responsibilities do we have as citizens, and how best should we satisfy them?  Let us know in the comments!

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