Here’s a paper by Bob Lackey, well worth reading, especially for any of us practitioner/scientist types. He’s got a great deal of real world experience in the natural resource science policy world. I think the whole paper is interesting but excerpted the section below that addresses some of the issues we discuss regularly on this blog.
In case you are unfamiliar with Bob and his work, here’s his bio.
But, for scientists who take their civic responsibilities seriously, all is not well. Far from it.
Specifically, for scientists at least, advocating personal or organizational policy preferences has become widely tolerated as acceptable professional behavior.
Scientists may even be encouraged to do this by a portion of our professional community. The risk: we will diminish ourselves and the scientific enterprise when we allow personal or organizational policy preferences to color our scientific contributions.
This is a morass into which we scientists must not allow ourselves to slip. As scientists, we have a special role, an exclusive role because we are uniquely qualified to provide technical knowledge that is based on rigorous scientific principles.
It is this policy neutral knowledge that the public and decision-makers sorely need.
Is the scientific enterprise at risk? It is! A recent U.S. national poll revealed that 40% of the general public has little or no trust in what scientists say about environmental issues. And, about as bad, the remaining 60% were not overly positive either. I suspect that similar results would be found in Canada, especially relative to fisheries science.
How pervasive is this distrust?
I have a good friend who has worked for several big national environmental
organizations. When I shared with him some of the ideas I planned to present today, he stopped me cold with a blunt reality check:
Bob, you’ve got to move into the 21st century. Science is a weapon in the policy wars. We buy the most believable scientists we can find and send them into court to battle Government scientists. Eventually the judge gets overwhelmed by the minutiae and orders the parties to go away and work out some kind of a compromise. This is how it works now. When this happens, we nearly always win because the agency just wants to make the case go away. And, best of all, they usually agree to pay our legal costs. That’s the real world, my friend!”
What did I say to warrant this rant?
But he was more upfront than most policy advocates, and I’ll accept that his is a sound political strategy, for an advocacy group, but it is a corruption of science and the scientific enterprise. He is paid to understand and manipulate the political and legal system to achieve his organization’s goals. Fine, but it is still a corruption of science.
What role should scientists play in policy debates? How can they best provide
leadership? How does a scientist lead from behind?
First, scientists should contribute to and inform policy deliberations. This is not only the right thing to do, but it’s an obligation, especially if our work is publicly funded. I also do not hold with the notion that it is sufficient for fisheries scientists to publish their findings in scholarly papers, papers that only a few technical experts will ever read. I take it as a given that scientists also should provide, and explain, the underlying science, including uncertainty, around important policy questions.
Second, when scientists do contribute to policy analysis and implementation, and they should, they must exercise great care to play the appropriate role. Unfortunately, working at this interface is also where some scientists mislead or confuse decision makers by letting their personal policy preferences color their science.
It is so easy to do.
Let me share a slightly embarrassing story that demonstrates one consequence of
allowing policy preferences to infect science. It involves a veteran Government lawyer, someone I have worked with for years.
We were relaxing in a Portland pub after spending a long, long day listening to dueling scientists testifying in an Endangered Species Act trial. I was trying to convince him, from my perspective as a scientist, that it seemed reasonable to expect opposing litigants to at least be able to agree on the basic science relevant to a particular court case, the so-called “scientific facts of the case”. After all, the legal debate should be over interpretations of the law, not science, right?
Perhaps I was badgering him a bit too much, but his response to my pestering jolted me:
Bob, you guys have no credibility. All of you spin your science to lend support to whatever policy outcome you or your organization favors. I’m not sure science was ever a beacon of truth, but it sure isn’t now, at least not in the legal arena. I watch scientists routinely misuse science in case after case.”
No credibility? Science spin? Misuse of science? He was wrong, wasn’t he?
No — he was not entirely wrong. Let me offer an example.
The most common misuse of science is to assume a policy preference and then
incorporate that policy preference into scientific information. Such science is called normative science, and normative science is, unfortunately, increasingly common.
Let me be unequivocal. Using normative science is stealth policy advocacy, plain and simple. Ignorance is no excuse.
Who would do such a thing?
It happens and it happens often.
An example from this part of North America: the case of the 160 year decline in wild
salmon and the role of dams. Here is a big insight: dams have an effect on wild salmon
populations and the effect is negative.
Along the West Coast, it is common for scientists to be asked to gauge the likely effects on wild salmon of removing a particular dam, or building a particular dam.
This is a legitimate and appropriate role for fisheries scientists, and one that we are well positioned to play. But, there is no scientific imperative to remove, or build, dams. Policy imperatives come from people’s values and priorities, not from science.
All of the policy options regarding the future of dams have ecological consequences,
some of which may even be catastrophic from a salmon perspective, but ecological
consequences are simply one element that the public and decision makers must weigh in choosing from a set of typically unpleasant alternatives.
Hardly a week passes that I don’t receive an online petition from an advocacy group
asking me, and other scientists, to sign as a show of support to remove a particular salmonkilling dam for reasons that sound like science, read like science, are presented by people who cloak themselves in the accoutrements of science, but who are actually offering nothing but policy advocacy masquerading as science.
Scientists, acting in their role as policy neutral providers of information, should not decide whether it is more important to use water to sustain wild salmon, or use the same water to generate electricity to run air conditioners, or the same water to irrigate alfalfa fields, or the very same water to make artificial snow at your favorite ski resort.
Politically, from what I observe today, the use of normative science cuts across the
ideological spectrum. It seems no less common coming from the political Left or Right, from the Greens or the Libertarians, or from Government agencies or Private sector organizations.
Regardless of the political ideology, normative science is a corruption of science No
matter how strongly a scientist feels about his or her personal policy preferences, practicing normative science is not OK. No exceptions.