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Navigating Science and Advocacy

By Dr. Scott Denning

In a recent article, NASA Climate Scientist Gavin Schmidt explained that every scientist is an advocate, and asks provocatively what should we advocate for? The answer, all successful scientists must advocate for the use of resources to support their research, many of us through formal proposals to government agencies. We advocate on behalf of our students, colleagues, and programs in our universities, laboratories, or companies. Many scientists also advocate for adequate support of education, public funding of science, and the use of science and reason in society as a whole.

Scientists involved in public discourse must navigate thoughtfully between public outreach and political advocacy. Science is a unique and important way of learning about the world, which has transformed global societies for the better. To govern ourselves well, democratic societies need to understand scientific results. Yet science communicators may fear a perceived loss of objectivity and credibility when sharing our expertise on a controversial topic. Under some circumstances, professional ethics or responsibilities governs what we should say. For many of us, public science communication is above and beyond our normal professional responsibilities, so this effort also involves issues of work-life balance.

Some scientists adopt a strategy of compartmentalization when doing science outreach on politically sensitive topics. They are careful to announce when they are wearing their “scientist hat” or their “citizen hat.” In my opinion, this strategy has limited impact because no matter which hat a scientist wears, it’s his or her head underneath. Science is sometimes idealized as an objective pursuit of knowledge, but all scientists are people with opinions and emotions. My goal in science communication is not to separate a perfectly objective scientist from a subjective and opinionated human being. Rather, I suggest we strive for honesty, authenticity, and integrity.

As members of a free society, scientists enjoy civil rights to hold and express political opinions. We can vote, write letters to the editor, or petition our elected representatives like any other citizen. Some of our political opinions doubtless reflect our professional expertise, but we don’t have “extra rights” because we are experts in our chosen field.

Scientists must adhere to professional ethics. We must be scrupulously honest with respect to data collection and reporting, and give proper credit to students and colleagues. We must be productive members of our institutions. For most of us, time and energy spent on public outreach does not excuse us from funding, conducting, and publishing our research. Academic, government, and privately-employed scientists may have different obligations with respect to advocacy. Some private companies and even government agencies have a “party line” on public statements relevant to their research, and may prohibit individuals from contradicting the official position. Academic scientists have historically enjoyed much more freedom to express opposing views. The centuries-old tradition of academic tenure is explicitly intended to protect the rights of faculty to speak freely about controversial issues.

As scientists move through their careers, expectations and responsibilities about advocacy can change. Early-career scientists such as post-docs or Assistant Professors have their professional hands full. Finding research funding, recruiting students and staff, conducting and publishing research, plus teaching and advising typically occupy all the time a young scientist is willing and able to devote to work. As time and accomplishments accumulate (and especially with academic tenure), a professionally secure mid-career scientist might find more time for scientific outreach and public advocacy. A long career of achievement pays dividends of credibility and expertise, but judgment and discretion will always be needed. Well-spoken experts have no special rights in a democratic society, and credibility can be lost more quickly than it is gained.

The navigation of science and advocacy is one component of developing a healthy work-life balance over a lifetime. Different scientists find this balance in a rich variety of ways that work for them, for their families and friends, for their employers, and for the larger society. Above all, I stress the need to strive for honesty and authenticity as we weave the complex and exciting aspects of our professional and personal lives into an integrated whole.

Dr. Scott Denning discusses with Graduate Women in Science how to navigate advocacy as a professional scientist.
Dr. Scott Denning discusses with Graduate Women in Science how to navigate advocacy as a professional scientist.

With over 100 publications, Dr. Scott Denning is a recognized expert on atmospheric global carbon cycling, and has spent almost a decade of climate science education and communication. This article is one product a three-part discussion series with researchers from Colorado State University on being a successful researcher, teacher, and science communicator, as sponsored by the Northern Colorado Chapter of Graduate Women in Science. Check out the first article on How to be a Successful Mentor, by Dr. Ellen Wohl, and stay tuned for part three of the discussion series with Dr. Meena Balgopal on science communication.

This post is being simultaneously cross-posted with CSU’s EcoPress blog and the Early Career Climate Forum.