Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?

James Hansen, NASA climate scientist, has argued strongly against Cap and Trade legislation, promoted the need for a carbon tax, complained of muzzling by the Bush administration, and has even been arrested for protesting coal burning power plants.  As a scientist and citizen, does Hansen have a moral duty to speak out on policy and politics? Or does he step over an important boundary, risking his own credibility and that of climate science by engaging in political activism?

Questions about how scientists should participate in public debates over science-related issues such as climate policy or voice their preferences when it comes to a specific election, have emerged as major topics of discussion. In a survey report released by Pew last year, 76% of the public and 97% of scientists said it was indeed appropriate for scientists to “become actively involved in political debates.” These survey results suggest that perhaps the outlook on scientists and their role in the political process may be changing. 

Still though, despite what appears to be widely shared acceptance of scientists’ involvement in politics, as Roger Pielke Jr. argues, many scientists still run from the label of advocate.  Instead these scientists often describe their efforts not as an attempt at promoting a particular policy direction but as simply scientific popularization. This tendency toward “stealth issue advocacy” may be the greater risk to their credibility.

So perhaps many scientists–when they claim they are not engaging in advocacy–are misreading not only public opinion but also the opinions of their peers.  Is it possible that all that is needed is more open discussion about the types of advocacy roles scientists can fulfill, a discussion that would enable scientists to define and articulate exactly what they are doing when they join the political fray? 

For insight on this question, I interviewed last week Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University. In a recent jointly authored article and book, Nelson has begun to re-articulate the debate over scientists as advocates, arguing that in fact, scientists have a special responsibility to become involved in policy debates.—Matthew Nisbet

How do you define advocacy?

In our article “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” my co-author, John Vucetich, and I define advocacy as first of all entailing more than merely conducting research and communicating results through primarily scientific venues—even if the nature of the research is inspired by or relevant to a policy matter. For us, advocacy entails promoting, developing, or assessing policy positions. Moreover, we also consider the assessment of policy a form of advocacy because policy assessment routinely entails important yet obfuscated promotion or refutation of a policy, even when the assessor is unaware of such affects. 

In a recent (though not yet published) survey that I conducted with some colleagues, this notion of advocacy, in comparison to some others used in the science and advocacy literature, was the most agreed upon by those in leadership positions in various professional conservation organizations.

What is the difference between advocacy and popularization –i.e. communicating about science—which is generally considered uncontroversial? Is there sometimes a false distinction here?

Right, advocacy for the use of science as a tool for discovery, or even communicating the results of scientific findings, seems relatively uncontroversial.  We have to remember, however, that we are just coming off roughly a decade where even reporting the results of one’s science could be risky and could subject the scientist to censure – a decade where non-scientist political appointees had no qualms with, and often suffered no penalties for, interfering with science. 

Certainly, advocating for the use of science and for revealing the discoveries of science, as well as for specific policy positions are forms of advocacy.  Simply because the former is uncontroversial does not mean it is not a form of advocacy, it most certainly is.  So in some ways the question is not, is advocacy acceptable, but which kinds of advocacy are acceptable and, most importantly, how ought we to go about advocacy and how ought we as a scientific community react to advocacy.  Very little of the vast literature on science and advocacy considers or treats the topic in a sophisticated manner.

What are some of the common arguments against scientists engaging in advocacy?

The arguments against advocacy all suggest that, while scientists seem to have a prima facie duty to serve society, this obligation is overridden by something else: concerns about the loss of credibility, the conflict of time and energy, or a conflict with the fundamental nature of science itself (e.g., assumptions about objectivity vs. subjectivity).  But scientists vary wildly on the relationship between these conflicts and advocacy.  For some, advocacy is strictly taboo.  Some actually do not see a necessary conflict between science and advocacy and believe that scientists are justified in their advocacy at times. 

A few, very few, believe they have a moral obligation to be advocates, mainly motivated by their sense of being citizens first and scientists second.  In the survey I alluded to above, the leadership of these professional conservation organizations were overwhelmingly, and surprisingly of the opinion that it was okay for scientists and scientific organizations to advocate, at least sometimes.

In your article, you draw upon an interesting comparison when discussing the argument that scientists don’t have enough time for advocacy work. You compare balancing advocacy and scientific research with commitment to a marriage. Can you explain?

I think the “time argument” is something of a copout.  As morally mature human beings we have many moral commitments, and sometimes these commitments conflict with one another, and sometimes we might lack the time or energy to fulfill them all.  I have a commitment to my spouse to fulfill certain responsibilities of marriage.  I also have various obligations to my neighbors, my community, my university, my various departments, my colleagues, my students, etc..  The simple fact that I cannot always and in each and every case fulfill all of these various commitments does not mean that I do not have them, nor does it mean that I am a hypocrite if I fail to realize them all. 

Think of the morally mature person as a juggler, working hard to keep in the air the many moral obligations that they’ve taken on as the morally mature person.  The morally mature person is bound to also be the person who drops the ball sometimes.  Navigating the rich world of moral commitments that we hold is tough, no doubt, but it is also the obligation we have as morally mature and capable people.  It certainly takes wisdom, and courage, and attention, but it is also a rewarding and privileged position.

In discussing the reasons to engage in advocacy, you suggest that scientific research itself is value-laden.  What do you mean by this?

I want to be careful here.  We know people often claim that science is not value laden, and we know there are other people who point out that science most certainly is value laden.  I do not think the former position is defendable, but the latter position needs to be cautious.  The mistake that both sides make, I think, is that they try to quickly reach other conclusions based on the premise that science is or is not value laden.  In many ways, science is value laden because we are humans and the world we live in is value laden.  And I would say this is not a bad thing or something to be afraid of or wish away. 

Scientists choose their topics of study (and choose against other topics of study), frame questions in a certain manner (and not in some other manner), accept funding from certain sources (and not from other sources – though there’s certainly more accepting than not accepting).  Governments or corporations or agencies fund science, and scientists are employed by governments or corporations or agencies.  Science employs concepts such as carrying capacity, health, and conservation.  All of these things are normatively laden and it is probably dangerously delusional to think otherwise.  All one needs to do is read a little history of science to know how quaint is the notion of value free science. 

Now, from this fact alone, however, it does not follow that scientists ought to be advocates, nor that they ought not be advocates.  Likewise, if scientists could actually successfully argue that science was not value laden in any way, it would not follow from that fact alone that scientists ought not be advocates.  So, in some ways the question about the value laden nature of science, while interesting and fun to think and read about, is quite separate from the question of whether or not scientists ought to be advocates.

You argue that scientists have a “special responsibility” to engage in advocacy.  Can you explain?

I shutter when I think about the implications of stripping scientists – those who might know more about some given topic then anyone else – of their citizenship.  I do not think people know what they are saying or implying when they say scientists should not be advocates, or when scientists justify their lack of advocacy or criticize their peers on this basis.  I can hardly imagine anything more undemocratic, unhealthy, and un-American than knowingly stripping someone of their citizenship, or knowingly giving it up. 

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.

Culturally, in comparison to other fields such as climate science or physics, is there something different about the fields of conservation biology and ecology, where there is perhaps more acceptance and more of a natural turn towards advocacy?  Is it easier for conservation biologists and ecologists to be advocates, or do the same considerations apply to all scientists?

This might be the case, it is something of an empirical question and would make for an interesting bit of scholarship.  A number of scholars have suggested that it is a short leap from describing the state of nature, as ecologists do, to being willing to act on behalf of nature.  I am not sure we understand a lot about the nature of that “short leap.” I would guess it would have something to do with the love of that which you study, or the love of studying living things and systems (something akin to the biophilia hypothesis).  Conservation biology from its very inception, however, has quite intentionally and unabashedly been motivated by the normative assumption that the diversity of life is a good thing, a value quite apart from its mere use value. 

Certainly this makes some conservation biologists uneasy, and there are always attempts to “purify” the discipline by ridding it of these roots, but the intrinsic value of nature has been there from the beginning.  If I admittedly and intrinsically value that which I study, and if in my study of it I discover threats to it, I think the leap to my willingness to act on its behalf is hardly a leap at all.

You also argue that if advocacy is done effectively by a scientist, they are at little risk for losing their credibility.  But what about universities or scientific societies: If more of their faculty or members are engaging in advocacy, does this jeopardize the reputation or funding support for a university?  Or the reputation of a scientific society?

I do not really believe that scientific credibility is as fragile as other people seem to believe.  Scientists can be terrible people and still do good science, or they can be wonderful people and do bad science, and we can all make that distinction.  Moreover, we sometimes forget that it is the scientific community that is the gatekeeper of credibility.  If a scientist or scientific community cannot draw a distinction between a person and their advocacy on the one hand, and their science on the other, then shame on us.  If we give away the control over our own ability to judge credibility, then shame on us. 

I actually think that universities, especially land grant universities, would gain some credibility in the eye of the public if they became more engaged.  Certainly if they advocate without transparency and in an unjustified manner that would be a terrible thing – and we see some of that today.  But can you imagine a university where scientists worked with communication specialists, philosopher of science, ethicists, writers and poets and film makers, to consider and craft messages relaying the results of their work in a justified and transparent manner?  Where we all took engagement as a sacred duty, as a way to justify and measure and test our work?  Can you imagine what an example that would set in a culture that currently struggles so much with basic notions of civility?

Are there places where you draw the line on advocacy.  For example do you make a distinction between advocating for a) general societal action on climate change, b) specifically for passage of Cap and Trade legislation and c) specific advocacy in support of a political candidate or one political party that has a preferred position on climate change?

I am not sure I would necessarily draw the distinction there, I am not sure that my advocacy for a general societal action and the support of a candidate or specific legislation can be reasonably disentangled from one another.  Scientists have always supported legislation, societal actions, and candidates that supported increasing science funding or perpetuated certain myths about the advance of science and the advance of civilization (see Daniel Sarewitz’s Frontiers of Illusion).  Would I, however, draw the line on advocacy somewhere else?  Again, I think if we stick to the basic idea that advocacy is acceptable if it is justified and transparent, then that is where I would draw the line.  Some of what goes by the name of advocacy today is inappropriate for sure, but not because it is advocacy, but because it is done in an unjustified and/or un-transparent fashion.  I guess at the end of the day I do not worry about the results of advocacy done in a justified and transparent manner.   

How does James Hansen’s advocacy work fit with the framework of your arguments? Is Hansen an ideal type scientist advocate?  Or are there elements of Hansen’s advocacy that generate cause for concern?  Is his status as a Federal employee raise issues?

I think Hansen if probably pretty close to what I am thinking about here.  I do not think I am aware of anything he does that is not based in the best available science, transparent, premised upon fairly uncontroversial normative assumptions, and justified.  His status as a Federal employee might raise issues with those who believe that Federal employees should not be advocates (or should not be advocates for certain policies – since when Federal employees advocate for some policies no one bats an eye), or with those who do not agree with what he is advocating.  On the other hand, if Federal employees are not working on behalf of the well-being of the public what are they doing?  But at least with this type of advocacy it is transparent, it could be laid out as a formal argument, we could have a rational discussion about the argument, its premises and inferences, we would know where to begin a rich conversation. 

Last year you participated in the Columbia River Quorum, a summit among members of each of the four academic cultures to discuss strategies for how each of these disciplines can participate together in public communication initiatives about climate change. In other academic cultures such as the humanities or even the social sciences, do think there is a different view about advocacy?  In other words, are these disciplines more open to advocacy historically?

The question of advocacy comes up far less in the humanities I think.  This might be because we are not taken as seriously as are scientists.  We are not well placed to have the impact that scientists can have.  It might be that questions of advocacy are heightened in disciplines that are wealthier, more powerful, perceived to be more central.  Historically, however, philosophers believed advocacy to be a duty and they were great advocates.  In fact, they sometimes suffered terribly and unjustly for it.  One might argue that Socrates was put to death because of his advocacy.  Somehow, somewhere we lost that.  By and large, though certainly not universally, philosophers do not engage with the world in a way that many would recognize as engaged, helpful, relevant, or even understandable.  It is a strange thing to me because what we possess and what we teach and the skills that we can bring to bare if we chose to are amazingly powerful.  What I am talking about is really basic, but equally lacking: critical analysis and serious rational thought.  Philosophers could be great partners and collaborators with biological scientists, media specialists, and social scientists.  And although there are some serious obstacles here, such partnerships have incredible potential for good in the world, and they could well serve all disciplines.

What types of advocacy initiatives do you see as requiring four culture collaborations?

Here is just one.  In the last week I published a book with philosopher and writer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2010).  The book is premised upon a philosophical or ethical argument.  The first premise of the argument, that we are doing great and harm to the world such that we are infringing upon the well-being of the future, is established by the biological and social scientists.  Advocates immediately take these facts, these bits of information, and try to urge us to act to prevent these harms.  But we know that people are not acting.  They do not act because from any given set of facts alone no specific course of action follows.  We need to make, loud and beautifully clear, the missing second premise. 

We need to argue that we have a moral obligation to leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world that was left to us.  So, our book is a collection of over 80 recognized moral voices (scientists and politicians, ethicist and writers, religious leaders and business leaders) who all argue that we do have just such an obligation.  So, the basic framework comes from philosophy.  But the first premise is from the sciences.  The idea of how we convey or communicate this message is from media and communication specialists.  We argue that only by fusing science, with ethics, with communication specialists, with writers and poets and film makers will be fully capable of addressing our environmental problems that are, by their nature, precisely this multi-dimensional. 

I love to think about these fusions.  Philosophers working on films, poets inspired by the work of a scientist, communication experts wrestling over messages with sympathetic and creative colleagues from the sciences and humanities.  We all know that the academy is not currently like this, but it could be, and just think about the possibilities, the power of this, and the good fun.

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

–Interview with Michael Nelson, Michigan State University

For more on what Nelson calls second premise fusions, see this previous post and article on “four culture” partnerships at universities. 

What do readers think?  Does Nelson make a convincing case about the need for scientists to engage as advocates?  Do you agree with Nelson that when scientists reject advocacy as a principle, they reject part of their citizenship?

Watch below a Big Think interview with James Hansen as he advocates for a carbon tax [Transcript follows]. Do you agree with Nelson that Hansen is an ideal example of a scientist-advocate?

Question: How can we wean ourselves off of coal?

James Hansen: Yeah. There's one huge step, and that is putting a price on carbon emissions. It's really that simple. If we put a gradually increasing price on carbon emissions by putting a tax at the source, at the mine or at the port of entry where the fossil fuel is imported to our country, then as that price rises, then energy efficiency, renewable energies, nuclear power -- the other forms of carbon-free energy -- can compete more effectively against the fossil fuels. But in order for the public to accept this, and in order for the public to have the money to invest in a new vehicle and insulating their home, we have to give all of this money to the public.

If we put a price on carbon equivalent to $1 a gallon of gasoline, that would generate $670 billion in one year in the United States. If you return this to the public, to legal residents of the United States, that would be $3,000 per adult legal resident. And if you give half a share to children, up to two per family, that's $9,000 per family with two or more children. So that would give the public the money to make the changes in their lifestyle that are needed to move us off of fossil fuels into a cleaner future, because right now the fossil fuels are the main source of air pollution, which is killing in the United States about 40,000 to 50,000 people per year; worldwide a much larger number than that, because the pollution is much worse in China and India than it is in the United States. So we have many reasons to want to move beyond the fossil fuel era.

Question: What is the likelihood of this actually happening?

James Hansen: It could happen very easily if our governments would move in that direction. And by the way, this has happened; it is happening now in British Columbia, Canada. They have imposed a carbon tax with the money returned to the public. They do it via a decrease in payroll taxes. I would rather see a dividend because half the people are not on a payroll; either they're retired or they're out of work. But you could use, say, half of it for a payroll tax deduction and half of it for a dividend.


Up Next