Science & advocacy: should climate change scientists engage in policy advocacy?

Confronting the risks presented by climate change will involve input from scientists – but scientists are not decision-makers elected to make policy decisions. So how should the expertise and opinions of scientists be factored into political and societal choices about climate change?

Most people want scientists to remain politically neutral and independent; climate-change scientists should communicate (inherently uncertain) science to policy-makers in order to inform policy, whilst making sure that scientific explanations do not veer into policy advocacy. It would seem that engaging in policy advocacy has the potential to threaten the trust society puts in scientists to remain independent from politics.

Similarly, communicating with the lay public is something that many people argue publically funded scientists are duty-bound to do. However, there appears to be a difference between merely communicating the conclusions from scientific research to the public and communicating these in a way that may affect action (as may happen if the science seems to imply that people should reduce a particular behaviour – or even abstain from it completely – as in the case of, for example, smoking).

Some people believe that, were scientists to discuss their personal policy preferences with the public or policy makers, the discussions may ‘colour the science’ and therefore threaten (perceived) scientific integrity. For some, advocacy risks making science sound like an elaborate marketing method, one that will produce dodgy evidence in favour of a particular preferred policy.

On top of all this, climate change is probably the most complex problem that humanity has ever faced. It encompasses a whole host of uncertainties – and a range of psychological factors make it a particularly difficult subject to communicate and for people to engage with. This means that climate scientists need to make decisions about how to explain these complicated concepts to non-experts: which communication frames to use and which aspects of the science to simplify to aid comprehension. Scientists’ preferences (no matter how public or private they make them) may affect the way they communicate (either consciously or unconsciously) and so, as they make decisions about how to explain what is happening, there is the potential for policy advocacy to creep in.

Indeed, the very idea of ‘framing a message’ (which is an almost unavoidable element of communication) could be considered a form of advocacy, and this leads some scholars to argue that the “dichotomy between facts and values is false”. Social values are bound to deeper questions about why we study certain scientific topics and not others, and the prominence and priority that is accorded to some ideas (but not others). Given that scientists are supposed to remain politically neutral, and maintain their independence, how are they to navigate potential advocacy situations – accidental or deliberate?

Since climate change is such an urgent and wicked problem, perhaps climate-change scientists should be allowed to advocate. After all, scientists are citizens too. Indeed, some argue that scientists are justified in advocating for specific policy action as “the graver the threat, all things being equal, the more justified is a partisan position against it”. Ironically, however, the people most qualified to determine if the threat is serious enough to condone advocacy are the scientists themselves.

But even if the public and policy-makers had a perfect understanding of climate science, it is one of a plethora of causes vying for attention. It’s also fairly obvious that climate change is highly politicised. For some people, even to investigate climate change is to make a political statement and so, really, there’s no getting away from politics for climate scientists – their very existence is a political statement.

Opinions about scientists engaging in policy advocacy depend upon views on the role of scientists in a democracy, how they are to negotiate their dual roles of scientist and citizen, and how the science community informs and is influenced by policy-making and engagement with the public. And, whilst there are lots of models and theories around how climate change scientists can engage with policy-makers, there’s no clear-cut evidence outlining exactly how scientists can navigate their dual role, nor how they can either explicitly avoid advocacy (if they want to) or throw themselves head-first into advocating for a particular policy without it affecting their scientific integrity.

Ultimately, it is up to scientists to decide how they communicate. But it is clear that making that decision is not always easy and that, whatever the decision may be, there are always consequences. Their choice tends to be greatly influenced by society’s perception of the role that science should play in decision-making in a democratic society, and what sorts of activities might conflict with this role, as well as the particular skills and preferences of the scientists involved.  

My PhD research is trying to peel this apart, firstly by testing the public’s objections to scientists engaging in advocacy to see if they hold true and to identify sources of tension for scientists; then by interviewing climate-change scientists about their experience of advocacy (trying to do it, or avoiding it, or watching others navigate it). It’s my hope that this will help scientists make better decisions about how they communicate their research and their opinions and, whatever their decision – whether it be to speak up, or to remain silent – do a better job of it.

Burning Questions

What exactly (if anything) is objectionable about scientists engaging in advocacy?

What are the sorts of things (if any) that we want to see scientists advocating for?

Could certain ways of framing communications be described as advocacy?

What forms of communication would help scientists explain their research to non-experts in a way that avoids the tensions of potentially engaging in advocacy?

By Lydia Messling, University of Reading

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