Roger’s Advice for Scientists Testifying before Congress

These are from a post by Roger Pielke Jr. on his blog here, I thought they also might be relevant to our sorts of science.

What are the lessons here for experts who testify before Congress?

I can think of several:

1. Decide what your role is. Regardless of which party invites you, decide whether you are there to defend that political party’s views (on science or policy) or if you are there to share what you know about questions for which you have expertise. These are not always the same thing.

2. Appreciate that statements that you make in the media that cherrypick, emphasize extremes (on any side of an issue) or otherwise go out on a limb could set your scientific colleagues up for difficulties in the future when they are asked to defend those statements in a political setting. At that point, the scientist being asked to defend the dodgy statements may face a trade-off between scientific accuracy and political solidarity.

3. Speak for yourself and let others speak for themselves. This is of course can be very difficult when participating in a shared campaign, either for action or a perspective. Even if you are not actively participating in that campaign you may be forced to render a judgement on it, e.g., “Ms. Scientist the IPCC consensus says X, what do you think?”

4. Recognize that when incorrect statements are made in a public setting, the consequences for you as an expert will be much higher than for politicians. That is just the way that it is. The consequences for folksy, grandfatherly Ralph Hall of being wrong will never be as significant as for a scientist testifying before him. So always be able to defend claims that you make.

5. Stick to your area of expertise when testifying as an expert. This seems obvious but is routinely violated.

6. Finally, it should be obvious that a decision to accept an invitation to testify is a political act. No, it does not mean that you shared the political agenda or scientific views of those who invite you. But it does mean that your participation in the process will be more thoughtful and more effective if you have considered your role in the political process, and especially your stance on advocacy versus arbitration. The risk of not thinking these issues through is of course a greater likelihood that you’ll simply be a stage prop in a political theater.

On sea level rise, the statements made by Holdren in 2006 to the BBC as AAAS President and environmental activist were far less measured and responsible than his statements made in 2009 and 2011 on the same subject as science advisor to the president before Congress. The difference — which I attribute as much to setting as to any changes in the science of sea level — helps to illustrate the difference between an expert who seeks to use science selectively as a basis for political advocacy and one who wishes to faithfully arbitrate scientific questions for policy makers. While these roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive, typically a choice must be made.

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