Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Peter Adler.
Last week Brian wrote a series of idea-rich posts about doing science in a post-fact world. In his final post, he concluded that scientists need to “Act more like other interest groups at the decision making table… Now that we’re no longer being accorded a special seat, we should sharpen our elbows and advocate strongly.” Although I agree with much, even most, of Brian’s three posts, I come to the opposite conclusion. Here are two argument in defense of the honest broker position.
1. Embracing advocacy will only accelerate loss of credibility and the marginalization of science
Traditionally, scientists were not seen as an interest group at the decision making table. Rather, scientists were at the table to help decision-makers, and interest groups, understand the consequences of different policies, as best we understand them. Most scientists—academics, government researchers—are not accountable for bad decisions, which is why we leave decision-making to people who are directly accountable, like politicians. In this honest broker role, the scientist’s job is to make sure that the decision-makers have access to the best available information, not to push any particular policy choice.
I agree with Brian that we have reason to worry that science’s privileged position at the policy-making table is under threat, but I think it is way too soon to conclude that we “are no longer being accorded a special seat.” Even if the Trump administration is determined to toss that seat, there are other administrations, and other institutions, and there will be other presidential administrations too. We need to play the long game here, because once we start operating like an interest group, we will never earn back the credibility that earned us that privileged, special seat. I think of the old parenting adage, “One Yes can ruin a thousand No’s.” In this case, one act of advocacy can ruin a thousand acts of honest brokering.
A common response to this argument is that each of us should be free to draw our own red line on the science-advocacy spectrum. This is appealing, but it ignores the fact that whenever we act in a professional role we represent our whole profession. Your willingness to advocate may erode my credibility to serve as an honest broker.
Another tempting solution is to pick and choose our roles depending on the issue. As long as I am clear about when I am wearing my scientist hat, and when I am wearing my advocate hat, I can play either role in public, right? Well, maybe not. As a grad student, I hosted a visiting speaker who had been working with a local county development commission for some time. He had always played the honest broker role, but he found one particular development project so offensive that he felt like he had to share his personal view. He did the “scientist hat, advocate hat” dance, said what he felt, and regretted it—the members of the council never looked at him the same way again.
I remembered this story a few weeks ago at the Salt Lake City March for Science. I was looking around at the pro-science signs held up right next to protest signs about all the standard environmental and social justice issues, and thinking that to most lay people, and certainly to Fox News viewers, “Science” must look like just another left-of-center interest group. The honest broker role is too valuable to risk in exchange for scoring short-term, and long-shot, political points.
2. We have real power in the courts, and we need to use that power responsibly
A big reason that I am not ready to give up on the honest broker role is that it is written into (some) law. The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require agencies to use the “best available science” to make decisions. The upshot is that lawyers spend a shocking amount of time parsing words in peer-reviewed journal articles! I know this only because I have a friend who is a lawyer for the Office of the General Counsel and often defends the USDA against suits filed by both environmental groups and pro-industry groups. Our conversations made me realize that the courts often take science more seriously than they probably should, because they don’t recognize any difference between the hard-won material we report in a Results section and the speculative musings on management implications that we casually toss in a Discussion section. To the court, it is all peer-reviewed science, and an ill-considered or agenda-driven conclusion sentence can seriously constrain an agency’s policy options.
The bottom line is that if your research is relevant to a case involving a law requiring best available science, then your research will be carefully considered, and you should write your Discussion sections accordingly. But the legal requirements for best available science go only as far as the credibility of the science. If we allow advocacy to erode our credibility, we will quickly lose this special legal role. I am describing an ideal, and of course there will be grey areas and difficult decisions, but a commitment to protecting the credibility of science should inform those decisions.
Taking a hard-line position to protect science’s honest broker status does not mean scientists cannot take action. We absolutely should call out misrepresentations of science, publicly and forcefully. If Scott Pruitt questions evidence for anthropogenic causes of climate change, climate scientists should correct him. But they should stop short of recommending a policy response.
We should also advocate for science itself, but as the March for Science shows, this is tricky. Advocating for science means making the case to preserve or expand research funding and defending science’s honest broker role. It does not mean publicly supporting regulations on greenhouse gas emissions or even mandatory vaccinations. We might consider those policies the obvious choices given the science, but it is not our job to make those decisions. Protest marches may not be the right medium for this kind of advocacy. Marching feels good, but may do long-term harm.
Finally, be as politically active as you want as a private citizen. Go to marches, sign petitions, donate money. If you want to assume a public role—run for office, take a leadership position in an advocacy group—more power to you, but you should be ready to relinquish your claim to the honest broker role.
I am arguing that our collective responsibility to protect the credibility of science should constrain our individual actions. Many of you may find that frustrating, and I can relate. In a previous life, I was an environmental activist, and I hate to think of what that activist would say about dedicating my current life to teaching esoteric concepts and writing even more esoteric papers that a few dozen people in the world will read. Shouldn’t I be doing more to save the world? Maybe one day I will decide to make a change, to hang up my scientist hat and do something to directly and tangibly make a difference. But then, as John Harte likes to say, who will save the world in 50 years?