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Workshop Summary Grapples With Advocacy in Science

Scientists are increasingly being encouraged to engage in the public policy process, which can include advocacy. Yet for some, “advocacy” remains taboo—an activity too closely associated with lobbying—and ethical guidance on responsible forms of advocacy is scarce.

Advocacy, an elusive concept that is generally considered to be “a deliberate, purposeful expression of an opinion” or an attempt to “influence a specific outcome,” continues to generate controversy within the scientific community, a new AAAS report confirms.

In fact, participants at an October 2011 AAAS workshop on Advocacy in Science, supported by the National Science Foundation, offered a range of views on the topic. Some contended that “scientists have an obligation to plead for the public good,” while others said advocacy “can be seen as too much like lobbying, like being a salesman.”
[ILLUSTRATION] The cover of “Advocacy in Science”

Participants at the workshop proposed a distinction between “advocacy for science” and “advocacy for policy.” In the former case, the summary explains, scientist-advocates might, for example, seek resources such as federal funding to advance the scientific enterprise. Such efforts may be seen as different from recommending specific policy outcomes—activities more closely associated with legislative lobbying.

In the absence of an agreed-upon code of conduct for scientist-advocates, scientists should be as clear as possible about when they are serving in the role of an advocate versus a scientist, said workshop participant Nicholas H. Steneck, director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research and professor emeritus of history. Steneck’s “Code of Conduct for Advocacy in Science” [see below] emphasizes honesty, accountability and fairness.

Many younger scientists, including those in graduate school, express an increased interest in the impact of science on the broader society. Unfortunately, workshop participants noted, few educational or training resources are available to assist scientists interested in advocating in a responsible manner. Most participants at the workshop agreed that advocacy could be included as one topic for discussion within an ethics curriculum.

Ginger Pinholster

Code of Conduct for Advocacy in Science

As a scientist:

  • Be honest, accountable, fair and a good steward in all of your professional work
  • Accept responsibility for the trustworthiness of your science

When acting primarily as a scientist reporting, explaining and interpreting your work:

  • Present information clearly, in understandable terms; avoid making exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims
  • Be aware of and make your interests transparent when presenting views on particular decisions
  • Point out the weaknesses and limitations of your arguments, including data that conflict with your recommendations
  • Present opposing scientific views; recognize critiques by others
  • Recognize when your activities as a scientist merge into advocacy

When providing advice to others on policies and courses of action (advocating):

  • Base your advocacy on your area(s) of expertise, separating formal expertise from experience-based expertise and personal opinions
  • Make clear when you are speaking as an individual scientist as opposed to someone formally representing a scientific organization and/or group of scientists
  • Be aware of the impact your actions as an advocate can have on science and its uses
  • Take steps to become knowledgeable about the complex issues that have a bearing on public decisions


Read the AAAS workshop summary.

Read other information on the “Workshop on Advocacy in Science.”

Read Nicholas Steneck’s Code of Conduct for Advocacy in Science