Should scientists engage in advocacy?

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Should scientists engage in advocacy? This question is one of the most debated topics in conservation and natural resource management. Some experts firmly oppose researchers advocating for policy decisions because such actions potentially threaten the credibility of their science. While others argue that with environmental issues becoming more complex, society would benefit from hearing scientists’ opinions and preferences on proposed actions. While both arguments are valid, we must recognize the answer to this question may never be a universal yes or no. As an early-career scientist, I’d like to share some of my observations and thoughts on this topic, and help continue this dialogue on the appropriateness of scientists exercising advocacy.

Policymakers are tasked with making decisions that determine how species and natural resources are managed, and subsequently affect and impact society. Scientists commonly play an integral role in these policy decisions, by providing policymakers with reliable and accurate information so they can make better-informed decisions. Examples include using stock assessments to set fishing limits, incorporating the regeneration capacity of forests into the timing of timber harvest, or considering the distribution of blue whales in permitting seafloor mining projects. Importantly, informing policy with science is very different from scientists advocating on policy issues. To understand these nuances, we must first define these terms.

A scientist considering engaging in policy advocacy. Source: Karen Brey.

According to Merriam-Webster, informing means “to communicate knowledge to” or “to give information to an authority”. In contrast, advocating means “to support or argue for (a cause, policy, etc.)” (Merriam-Webster 2019). People can inform others by providing information without necessarily advocating for a cause or policy. For many researchers, providing credible science to inform policy decisions is the gold standard. We, as a society, do not take issue with researchers supplying policymakers with reliable information. Rather, pushback arises when researchers step out of their role as informants and attempt to influence or sway policymakers to decide in a particular manner by speaking to values. This is advocacy.

Dr. Robert Lackey is a fisheries & political scientist, and one of the prominent voices on this issue. In his popular 2007 article, he explains that when scientists inform policy while also advocating, a conflict of interest is created (Lackey 2007). To an outsider, it can be difficult to distinguish values from scientific evidence when researchers engage in policy discussions. Are they engaging in these discussions to provide reliable information as an honest scientist, or are they advocating for decisions or policies based on their personal preferences? As a scientist, I like to believe most scientists – in natural resource management and conservation – do not engage in policy decisions for their own benefit, and they truly want to see our resources managed in a responsible and sustainable manner. Yet, I also recognize this belief doesn’t negate the fact that when researchers engage in policy discussions, they could advocate for their personal preferences – whether they do so consciously or subconsciously – which makes identifying these conflicts of interest particularly challenging.

Examples of actions scientists take in conducting and reporting research. Actions on the left represent actions of policy advocacy, those on the right do not, and the center is maybe. This graphic was adapted from a policy advocacy graphic from Scott et al. 2007. Source: Jamie Keyes.

It seems much of the unease with researchers exercising advocacy has to do with a lack in transparency about which role the researcher chooses to play during those policy debates. A simple remedy to this dilemma – as Lackey suggested in his paper – could be to encourage scientists to be completely transparent when they are about to inform versus advocate (Lackey 2007). Yet, for this suggestion to work, it would require complete trust in scientists to (1) verbalize and make known whether they’re informing or advocating, and (2) when they are informing, to provide credible and unbiased information. I’ve only witnessed a few scientists do this without ensuing some skepticism, which unfortunately highlights issues around an emerging mistrust of researchers to provide policy-neutral science. This mistrust threatens the important role scientists have played in policy decisions and the relationships between scientists and policymakers.

While much of this discussion has been focused on how researchers and their science are received by policymakers, researchers engaging in advocacy are also concerned with how they are perceived by their peers within the scientific community. When I ask more-senior researchers about their concerns with engaging in advocacy, losing scientific credibility is typically at or near the top of their lists. Many of them fear that once you start advocating for a position or policy decision (e.g. protected areas, carbon emission reduction, etc.), you become known for that one cause, which opens you up to questions and suspicions on your ability to provide unbiased and objective science. Once your credibility as a scientist comes into question, it could hinder your career.

How it sometimes feels when researchers conduct policy-relevant science. Source: Justin DeFreitas.

Conservation scientists are faced with a unique dilemma. They value both biodiversity conservation and scientific credibility. Yet, in some cases, risk or potential harm to a species or ecosystem may outweigh concerns over damage to their credibility, and therefore, may choose to engage in advocacy to protect that species or ecosystem (Horton 2015). Horton’s explanation raises an important point that researchers taking a hands-off approach to advocacy may not always be warranted, and that a researcher’s decision to engage in advocacy will heavily depend on the issue at hand and the repercussions if the researcher does not advocate their policy preferences. Climate change is a great example, where climate scientists are advocating for the use of their science, recognizing the alternative could mean continued inaction on carbon emission reduction and mitigation. [Note: this is called science advocacy, which is slightly different than advocating personal preferences, but this example helps demonstrate my point.]

To revisit the question – should scientists engage in advocacy? Honestly, I don’t have a clear answer, because there is no clear answer. This topic is one that has so many dimensions beyond the few I mentioned in this blog post. In my opinion, I don’t think researchers should have an always yes or always no stance on advocacy. Nor do I think every researcher needs to agree on this topic. A researcher’s decision to engage in advocacy will all depend on context. When faced with this decision, it might be useful to ask yourself the following questions: (1) How much do policymakers trust me? (2) How will my peers perceive me if I choose to engage? (3) Could I lose scientific credibility if I do engage? And (4) What’s at stake if I don’t make my preferences known? Hopefully, the answers to these sub-questions will help you decide whether you should advocate.

References:

Horton, C. C., Peterson, T. R., Banerjee, P., and M. J. Peterson. 2015. Credibility and advocacy in conservation science. Conservation Biology. 30(1): 23-32.

Lackey, R. T. 2007. Science, Scientists, and Policy Advocacy. Conservation Biology. 21(1): 12-17.

Scott et al. (2007). Policy advocacy in science: prevalence, perspectives, and implications for conservation biologists. Conservation Biology. 21(1): 29-35.

Merriam-Webster. 2019. Retrieved from < https://www.merriam-webster.com/ >

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