About a year ago, shortly after the March for Science, I wrote a three part series on living as a scienitst in a post-fact world (how we got there, why humans rarely use facts to decide what to believe, and why/how scientists should engage with policy). Peter Adler wrote a spirited rebuttal “Response to a post-fact world: in defense of the honest broker“. I responded at the time in the comments. But Meghan’s recent review of the Merchants of Doubt got me thinking about this again. So did an opportunity to shadow my representative in the Maine legislature for a day with my son. During that day I was introduced to one of only two scientists in that body out of 185 people (House + Senate).The two main topics of debate, solar energy fees and legalizing marijuana, both had substantial areas where science could have been informative, but seemed to have little to no impact on the debate, and for that matter the debate seemed to have little to no impact on the actual outcome. Rational discussion of facts is not really how policy gets made. So I want to return to my post-fact world claim that scientists need to become more engaged in policy and Peter’s rebuttal. In particular, I want to suggest that scientists get so muddled in how to relate to policy because we confuse two separate axes.
Most arguments against scientists becoming engaged in policy are that we will lose credibility or no longer be perceived as objective. I’m not so convinced that most people making policy perceive us as objective, which implies we have little to lose. But I am not going to follow that line of argument today. I am going to instead argue that we need to distinguish, and stakeholders watching us can distinguish, two different aspects of engaging in policy:
- Honesty vs ends-justify-means axis – this axis is about how we approach discussions. Do we always wear our scientific hats, carefully distinguishing what is well established and evidence based from what is speculation? Are we cautious in overclaiming? Or do we act like many actors in the policy arena (be it partisan politicians, lobbyists or lawyers in a court case) who are actually paid to be push a specific outcome and to pick and choose and exaggerate the lines of argument that support their side?
- Passive vs active dissemination axis – this axis is about how much energy we as scientists devote to getting the scientific perspective into the policy making domain. Do we publish a paper in a scientific journal and figure that is enough? Or do we write editorials in newspapers? Go visit legislative committees and legislators and government scientists and managers (all of whom are much more accessible than one would think in many states)? Or run for office ones self?
I would suggest that most arguments against scientists getting involved conflate these two axes. If we are actively disseminating the scientific perspective, then we must be no-holds-barred unobjective. This of course is manifestly not true. The more important question is whether others in the policy realm can perceive the distinction between these two axes. It may be convenient for adversaries to intentionally conflate these (e.g. the defender of a polluting company notes that the expert witness on the biological impacts receives grant money so he is not objective), but I believe that in fact most of the actual decision makers (not the arguers on the edges like lawyers and lobbyists) can indeed distinguish the two. If I am talking to a legislator does that make that make her more or less likely to trust my opinions? Every study out there shows that beliefs are largely adopted through social processes, so it actually makes me more likely to be believed. Let me rephrase that in my terminology – being engaged and active in disseminating science does NOT make people think we’re used car salesmen adopting an ends-justify-the-means approach. People can distinguish dishonesty from reaching out to communicate. And indeed given the social nature of belief-building, reaching out actually increases the likelihood of being perceived as credible.
This was the essence of my call in my post in scientists needing to engage. We don’t need to exaggerate and cherry-pick and lose objectivity. I agree that deeply harms science. We indubitably need to stick to the honesty side of that axis. Rather my call was a need to move from passive to active on the engagement side.
Putting these two axes together leads very crudely to four different roles:
First – I should note that three of these labels are borrowed from elsewhere in the literature. “Honest Broker” and “Stealth Advocate” both come from Roger Pielke Jr’s book entitled the Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. It is an excellent and important book on this topic. He has his own 2×2 classification that differs from mine (and honest broker is one quadrant and stealth advocate is outside his four quadrants). But I think/hope I am using these two terms in a way that doesn’t do damage to his ideas. The phrase “loading dock” comes from papers by Cash (e.g.) who is also really well worth reading for those interested in this area.
Like Pielke I think (and I think most think) that the most feared and damaging category for science is the “Stealth Advocate”. The person who pretends to wear the label of objectivity and scientific approach while actually adopting a no-holds-barred, ends-justify-the-means cherry-pick, exaggerate and distort the science and the degree of scientific certainty approach. This is what everybody who tells scientists not to become advocates fear. But I think its interesting to note that while lobbyists do not enjoy stellar reputations, nobody fears them or sees them as damaging the credibility of a position because they are transparent about their intentions. A stealth advocate is way worse than a paid, licensed advocate.
Given the fear of stealth advocacy and the resulting proclivity for scientists to “stay at home” in the top left corner, I think it is worth examining that model. Cash justifiably calls this the “loading dock” mentality. All I have to do is publish great and policy-relevant science and the policy-makers will back up to my loading dock to take it away. Umm, no! They don’t read our journals. The lobbyists who translate science for them don’t read our journals (and in any case are transparently cherry-picking favorable arguments, not accurately representing the state of scientific consensus). Living in this box is pretty much equivalent to be willing to have no impact on the policy process.
Which brings me to the “Honest Broker” role. I don’t conceive this role exactly like Pielke. But I think it is powerful label that not coincidentally exactly describes its position in this 2-D coordinate space. Honest=left column. Check. Broker inherently means somebody who is active and engaging and connecting and spanning into the policy arena. So bottom left box. Check!
A graduate student presenting at ecolunch today made a genius statement that I thought marvelously cut through the dilemna. She works in agriculture and I asked her how her science ends up impacting farmers. And she said “well farmers believe other farmers more than scientists, but if we can identify an influential farmer in the community and run the experiment with them and they see the improved yields with their own eyes, other farmers will believe them. That is way more influential than publishing a paper.” Does using that active (and yes very calculated) approach to dissemination make the science more or less likely to be used? I’m pretty sure you know the answer.
So when I say scientists need to become more engaged, this is the role I have in mind. Be openly and actively engaging with policy. Be openly and actively (aka get out of your office and talk) to stakeholders and policy makers. Think about the best way to influence policy. But keep your science hat on. It is doable. Policy makers recognize and respect that role. And it is by far the most effective box to have a role on policy.
So to briefly recap what it means to be more engaged (I don’t think I need to recap what it means to remain scientific!) it pretty much boils down to activities that get outside of academia. Writing to local newspapers. Giving presentations at garden or fishing clubs.Talk to people “in the real world”. IE engage with stakeholders. Be crafty like the graduate student above. Ask for appointments with your state representatives and the chairs of committees relevant to your science and drive to the state capital. If you’re in DC ask to meet with your congressional representatives. Run for office (even local office).
But please keep your science hat on. Don’t become a stealth advocate.
What do you think? Is it possible to separate on these two axes?