Ask us anything: what’s your role in your community, and in society?

Every year we invite readers to ask us anything! Today’s question comes from Noah:

How do you see your role in your community and society at large?

From Brian:

I’m going to assume the question was along the lines of how as a practicing scientist (or practicing professor) how do I see my role in the community and society large.

I tend to think of it as a Venn diagram. One circle for scientist. One for citizen. There is a region of overlap but also regions of each that is independent. As a scientist it is important for me to pursue curiosity and the questions that arise as I follow a path without having to always ask if it is of immediate social benefit. And certainly as a citizen I do many things where I don’t publicly wear my scientist hat (nor even more strongly my educator hat). For example I am politically involved and often campaign for candidates but I do that as a citizen. I also serve on my local school board but I do that as a citizen.

Of course even though I don’t in anyway publicly wear a scientist or educator hat in those roles, it would be impossible for me not to have my perspective informed in how I think and approach those roles. For example in my school board role I have pushed for more/better STEM education and insisted on a data-driven approach to decisions. But that just comes from who I am. I don’t say “as a scientist I think …” or “as a scientist I expect you to listen to me on this …”.

I think the interesting question is what goes in that overlap/intersection. Where are places that my scientific and citizen roles do overlap in a public way? At one time my town was looking at changing zoning to authorize a quarry. It was on a hill overlooking a spectacular bog with a boardwalk through it. I was involved in campaigning against it. Both when I spoke at a hearing and in a lengthy letter I actually said “here’s concerns I have as a citizen (e.g. noise, undue speed of process), and here’s concerns I am raising because it is within my professional training and am claiming special expertise (likelihood of impacting endangered species, interactions between rock dust and sphagnum moss)”. Did the fact I spoke on topics I was an expert as a scientist give me additional credibility with the town council? I don’t know. I hope so. Did the fact I was careful to distinguish areas I was speaking as an expert and not as an expert matter? Again, don’t know but I can imagine they did. I also do a lot of outreach on climate change (e.g. speaking at schools and churches). While I wouldn’t say any scientist has an obligation to engage in such outreach around their expertise, I think it is a very common thing scientists do. I do claim the “scientist” hat when I speak in such contexts.

As the last paragraph might imply, I think it is critical to be clear both to myself and my listeners about the hats I am wearing when I speak in public. I just was reskimming Roger Pielke Jr’s book “Honest Broker”. He also emphasizes that scientists can and are advocates as citizens (albeit perhaps informed by their scientific training) and also advocates or advisers as scientists. But it is really important to be transparent while communicating about exactly what hat we are wearing. Or we turn into what he calls “stealth advocates”. Stealth advocacy is when there is an explicit goal to steer the process to one specific outcome and to invoke any and all relevant arguments. In my opinion, stealth advocacy undermines our effectiveness both as citizens and as scientists (and long run it undermines the effectiveness of science in policy).

A somewhat related point is that when claiming the scientist hat while operating in the intersection (i.e. also a citizen) I think it is important to realize that doesn’t make us better or more privileged than other citizens who might be wearing say citizen and landowner or citizen and job creation hats (or the citizens serving as decision makers). Talking down or assuming that anybody who disagrees with me is an unscientific idiot is a very ineffective way to wear the science hat. Thus if we are in the science/citizen intersection it is very important to remember we are not just a scientist but remember our “one citizen in a participatory democracy” hat as well.

From Jeremy:

Sorry, I don’t have an interesting answer to this one. I just try to be the best professor, father, husband, friend, and citizen I can be. Not necessarily in that order.

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