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AAAS Convenes Experts to Review Role of Advocacy in Science
While scientific advocacy can help resolve important issues, scientists must be careful not to hinder progress on important social issues by distorting or hyping science, according to a group of experts hosted by AAAS's Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (CSFR).
Fritz Scheuren, vice-president for statistics at the National Opinion Research Center and former president of the American Statistical Association (ASA), stated that scientists, mathematicians, and their societies are fulfilling a social responsibility by offering informed, expert perspectives on complicated issues.
"Among the missions of the ASA is to use the discipline to enhance human welfare," Scheuren said. "Scientific societies must become more pro-active in advocacy."
Agreeing with Scheuren, Michael S. Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, noted that in addition to enlightening citizens about important issues, societies have self-interest in demonstrating the importance and relevance of research and development in society.
"Because many scientists receive federal funds, there is a strong interest in showing how science can benefit society by solving complicated problems. We would not be able to conduct science without the public's support. You cannot separate advocacy and science; it's how you think about them."
The day-long discussion took place on 18 September at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., as part of a two-day meeting of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
The committee members and invited specialists included experts from biology, law, anthropology, political science, statistics, and philosophy, among other disciples.
For Mark S. Frankel, committee staff officer and director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility & Law Program, the relationship between science and advocacy is among the most pressing issues for the scientific community.
"As science and technology are increasingly linked to major social, economic, and political issues, they are counted on by the public to provide solutions to some the world's most pressing problems—poverty, disease, environmental degradation, global warming," Frankel said.
While Scheuren and Lubell offered perspectives from the scientific societies, Ruth Krulfeld, professor emeritus of anthropology and international affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., contended that because of their close and perhaps symbiotic relationship, science and effective advocacy should be taught in the universities and colleges.
"Advocacy should be taught," Krulfeld said. "We must train the next generation to do good science and good advocacy. Science without advocacy ignores the complex world in which science is conducted."
Krulfeld noted that although the American Anthropological Association's ethical guidelines brand advocacy as a personal choice, some situations make advocacy an ethical responsibility.
"Under certain circumstances, scientists do indeed have an ethical responsibility to engage in advocacy, for example, in instances of humanitarian crises—where their expertise can make a crucial difference in the resolution of critical problems."
Sharply disagreeing with Krulfeld, Catherine Rudder, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., believes that scientists should become involved in politics as citizens, not as scientists.
"Scientists as citizens should participate in policy debates—but they should not believe that they are more capable to participate in policy making than other citizens," Rudder said. "That's elitist."
Rudder noted that scientists often participate in policy debates with current knowledge that is later proven to be incorrect or incomplete.
Rudder cited federal legislation requiring tobacco companies to list tar content on cigarette packages, suggesting to consumers that smoking a cigarette with lower tar content is less harmful.
"That belief it patently wrong—as we know now after further research," Rudder stated.
Erik D. Olson, director of advocacy at the National Resources Defense Council, said that science is often attacked though "manufactured doubt"—that is, creating skepticism about the validity and clarity of scientific evidence.
One of the most well-known organizations to use manufactured doubt, the tobacco industry, attempted to undermine research documenting a causal link between tobacco use and cancer by claiming the absence of scientific consensus.
More recently, many government scientists and advocacy organizations have charged the Bush Administration with intentionally misleading the public by censuring scientists' finding and reports—specifically those whose research underscores the reality and severity of global warming.
In January of 2005 and 2006, James Hansen, lead climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, claimed in interviews with the Washington Post and the New York Times that senior NASA officials were preventing him from speaking about the growing danger of the steady increase of global surface temperatures.
"In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it has now," Hansen said in a January 2005 Washington Post article.
David Blockstein, senior scientist and former executive director for the National Council on Science and the Environment, believes one possible way to counteract disinformation is for scientists to become better scientific communicators of science and more proactive in offering data and conclusions.
"The science community has been negligent and must have a reckoning," Blockstein said.
As an example of an effective science communication program, Blockstein highlighted the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships which place scientists on the staffs of Members of Congress and federal departments and agencies to help research, develop, and draft science-related legislation.
"The important thing is for us to become better communicators about science, its implications and consequences for society, and the consequences of continuing to try to violate the laws of nature," Blockstein said. Blockstein was an AAAS Congressional Fellow in 1987-88.
11 October 2006