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Panel Says Scientific Advocacy Can Help Resolve Important Issues, Warns of its Misuse
(Left to right) Francis Slakey, Joe Perpich, Ruth Krulfeld, Catherine Rudder and Mary Woolley
While science can be a powerful tool for resolving important issues, its misuse can lead to misguided policies and a loss of public trust in scientists, a panel warned at the 2008 AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.
Speaking at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington, D.C, the panel said that effective advocacy by scientists encourages researchers to apply their professional expertise or research to a public policy question. This allows lawmakers and the public to learn about potential benefits or consequences of a policy, they said.
But when scientists use their scientific credentials to advocate on behalf of a non-scientific question or one outside their expertise, or use poor methodology, Ruth Krulfeld, professor emeritus of anthropology at George Washington University, said that scientists can lose credibility and sometimes harm the causes they aim to support.
"The penalties for loss of scientific excellence while engaging in advocacy are many, including loss of credibility, the politicization of science, and failure in protection of the integrity of science," said Krulfeld. "It also can lead to unsubstantiated conclusions and harm to the very causes advocated."
Krulfeld also said that advocacy can sometimes lead to issues of transparency. In the 1960s and 1970s, she continued, many in her field became uncomfortable with advocacy after some anthropologists working in South East Asia and Latin America funded by the Department of Defense and U.S. Agency for International Development misrepresented their funding sources or the nature of their research, or indirectly harmed those they studied.
Despite the potential pitfalls of advocacy, Krulfeld said that there is a shared area between science and policy where scientists can play an important role in informing the public.
While Krulfeld was careful to note that she does not believe that all scientists, or even most scientists, should engage in advocacy, she said that those scientists that do apply their research to policy should do so in a responsible way.
To help scientists, especially those early in their careers, determine if and how they should apply their research, Krulfeld called on the scientific professional societies to develop broad, flexible guidelines for engaging in advocacy within their discipline, along with a database of advocacy case studies. She also suggested that the development of interdisciplinary guidelines and databases might be useful.
In addition, she urged universities to incorporate professional ethics and responsible advocacy into their education requirements, highlighting the need for the teaching of advocacy and mentoring in science curricula.
"Young scientists are in fact doing advocacy work as scientists whether we agree that as scientists they should or should not," she said. "For the sake of science in the future they should be trained to do this well."
The 8 May discussion featured a diverse panel of experts including Krulfeld; Catherine Rudder, professor of public policy at George Mason University; Francis Slakey, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Physical Society; Mary Woolley, president of Research!America; and Dahlia Sokolov, professional staff member on the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology. The panel was moderated by Joseph Perpich, president of JGPerpich, LLC.
Krulfeld and Perpich are members of the AAAS Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, a diverse working group of experts that has discussed the role of advocacy in science at previous meetings held at AAAS headquarters.
Agreeing with many Krulfeld's concerns, Rudder urged scientists to develop strong professional organizations that can stand up for the integrity of science and its findings. Referring to reports suggesting that government scientists have been silenced and their reports altered, Rudder said that too often, researchers are ill-equipped to navigate the politics surrounding the use of their science.
Rudder said that while science is verifiable and based upon fact, politics is based on a completely different set of principles. "In politics, there is very little transparency and you learn the rules of politics to get around other rules and get elected," she said. "People don't necessarily give political money for truth."
While agreeing with Krulfeld on a robust role for scientific organizations, Rudder warned against "scientific arrogance," or, scientists applying their knowledge outside their expertise.
"The fact of the matter is that not all scientists agree on certain issues and there is much that we don't know," Rudder said. "With many policy issues that involve science, there are a lot more aspects that go into policy than just that science."
Rudder later cited low-tar cigarettes as an example of how research led to potentially misguided policy based upon incomplete knowledge. At one point, she recounted, it was assumed that the higher the tar, the more damaging the cigarette. This turned out to be false as researchers soon discovered that smokers of low-tar cigarettes smoked more and drew in the smoke more forcefully than smokers of non-low-tar cigarettes.
"Science wasn't necessarily wrong on low-tar cigarettes, we simply had very incomplete knowledge," Rudder said.
Rudder added that climate change research, a multivariate and complex discipline, poses very difficult questions for scientists. While the best and overwhelming evidence suggests that human factors are greatly adding to or accelerating global warming, there is much that the scientists do not know. This allows "naysayers to hone in on what scientists do not know and question long-term projections," she said.
Slakey, a registered lobbyist and co-director of the Program on Science in the Public Interest at Georgetown University, urged scientists to increase their participation in the political process by working with their professional society, visiting their elected officials, and even running for office. Slakey cited the work of Scientists and Engineers for America, which provides political campaign training for scientists, as an example of an effective program to increase science's influence in public policy.
In addition, Slakey said that scientists will have to "deal" with not having the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an office within the U.S. Congress that provided expert advice to federal legislators from 1972 to 1995. Shortly after taking over control of Congress in 1995, the new Republican majority eliminated funding for the office; many in the GOP believed the office was too slow, too expensive, and increasingly partisan.
"It's O.K. for scientists to fight for the [reinstatement] of OTA's funding, but scientists are going to deal with not having it," Slakey said. "Scientists and their professional organizations are going to need to stand in."
Woolley, who has a 25-year history of advocating on behalf of science, said that scientists must do a better job communicating their research to the public. Because a lot of research is funded through citizen tax dollars, it is up to scientists to explain how their research is in the public's interest.
"Scientists are ultimately accountable to the public," Woolley said, adding that researchers should have an "I work for you" speech for the public.
Woolley said that while she is concerned about the shrinking role of science in policy-making, she is encouraged by the public's support of science and its practitioners. "Americans are generally positive about science and scientists are considered very prestigious," she said, adding that a recent poll shows that Americans want the candidates running for president to have a debate on science issues.
Offering a look at science policy from Capitol Hill, Sokolov, whose subcommittee oversees the National Science Foundation and several other federal science agencies' education programs, said that there are several factors that make science advocacy difficult.
The first, she said, is that U.S. House members are up for reelection every two years, leading them to constantly view programs through a short-term lens. In addition, very few House members have a science degree, which often makes it difficult for legislators to evaluate increasingly complex scientific concepts.
"The problem is not necessarily the intentional exclusion of science, but rather elected officials don't have the tools to evaluate the science," she said, adding that her colleagues on the House science committee are not representative of other committee or member staffs.
Sokolov suggested that scientists could increase their visibility on Capitol Hill by writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting with congressional staffs. In addition, she urged scientists to visit their congressional representative while they are in their home districts, not just in Washington, D.C.
"Don't ask us as federal policy-makers to step up to the plate if you are not willing to," Sokolov said. "And don't just go to the science committees. We love seeing you, but, it's like preaching to the choir."
19 May 2008