I’m a scientist. I’m also an advocate. When I have the chance, I push for policies directly linked to the issues I professionally study. I support science-based approaches to changing human behavior linked to climate change, increasing volunteer engagement, and helping people live healthier lives. That may strike some as a conflict of interest. Some individuals believe scientists are supposed to be completely objective about, even detached from, the societal implications of their research. Truth should be the only goal of science, not policy!
Well, I obviously disagree. I mean, I blog about science and policy often. But, I want to briefly chat about one reason why some folks believe scientists should not be engaged in policy advocacy. Some in the public and the scientific community believe that when scientists are policy advocates, it undermines public support for science. The public, they believe, want scientists to focus on science and leave the politics and policy to others. The more scientists advocate for policies, the more people distrust their scientific intentions and the soundness of their research.
I think there’s real heft to this argument. We live in an increasingly polarized society. Recent polling suggests that in the United States, a majority of Republicans (58%!) state that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Commentators have tried to understand why Republicans increasingly distrust higher education (dislike of “safe spaces” and “political correctness”? perceptions of liberal professors? appreciation of the Trump administration’s ambivalence toward colleges and universities?). There’s also a nationwide trend in the U.S. toward dislike of expertise, something scientists have almost by definition. In this kind of context, can scientists advocate for policies without this advocacy being interpreted as a biased gesture? Will they be viewed as overstepping their bounds?
Let’s use the March for Science back on April 22nd as a test case. Over a million people across 600 cities around the globe marched to show support for science, including science-informed policies. And now, organizations like 314 Action are supporting scientists in their bids for public office. Scientists joined the efforts, obviously, but some scientists chose to stay on the sidelines. Scientists also did a bit of science on the march itself (of course they would). Survey research following the march found that 48% of survey respondents supported the goals of the science march, 26% opposed the goals, and 26% did not know enough to report beliefs about the march.
As a scientist who engages in policy advocacy, I found that to be somewhat of a relief. A divided country has divided opinions in it, sure. But, people tended to think the March for Science would help science’s standing with the public, or that it would have no effect. And, interestingly, recent experimental evidence tells a similar story.
Research by John Kotcher and his colleagues randomized a nationally representative sample of people to reading about different messages that posited a scientist advocating for a policy. In all of the messages, a scientist discussed climate change. In the most neutral message, people randomized to that condition read a message from a climate change scientist that simply stated that there was a recent scientific finding that CO2 recently reached 400 parts per million. So, a message with no actual policy advocacy. Some people were randomized to reading a scientist’s message about the pros and cons of various climate change policy options. Yet others were randomized to reading a scientist’s message about addressing climate change without a specific policy in mind. Finally, other people were randomized to reading a scientist’s message advocating for a single, specific policy (either limiting carbon emissions from power plants or building more nuclear plants). Did people dislike when the scientist spoke of policy, particularly supporting specific policies to address climate change?
So, those wary of scientists advocating for policy may have reason to be optimistic. Admittedly, these are just a couple of scientific studies, so there’s undoubtedly more nuance under the surface. Why were people wary of a scientist advocating for use of nuclear power to help reduce carbon emission? Perhaps because people are generally pretty wary about the risks associated with nuclear power, and just because a scientist advocates for a policy it does not mean people throw away their personal beliefs about that policy approach. But, I’ve long been of the opinion that the people discussing and advocating for policies should be experts in the science relevant to those policies. I’m always open to changing my mind, but my read of this research area is that the public tends to agree.
What do you think?