October 20, 2017; Times Higher Education
In the era of Trump, as scientific fact is dismissed as “fake news,” advocates are being called upon to set the record straight, including scientists, who are often hesitant to engage in civic discourse. Two Obama-era staffers—Cristin Dorgelo, former chief of staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and John Holdren, former chief science advisor—argue that scientists have a responsibility to engage in advocacy for evidence-based policymaking, especially now.
The call to action comes after sweeping funding cuts for research and the disbanding of scientific advisory committees by the Trump administration. While scientists have often avoided the spotlight, today, with science itself under attack, the public needs scientists to voice their concerns. Research indicates that while the public’s faith in institutions is rapidly fading, scientists are still trusted. The 2016 General Social Survey found that people trust scientists more than Congress, the press, major financial institutions, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch.
While scientists may be well positioned to be advocates, the question remains: Is it really their duty? John Kotcher, a scientist at George Mason University, contends that scientists should engage in advocacy as part of their “public service.” This idea of scientists being public servants is twofold. First, government agencies (e.g., the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency, among others) are leading sources of funding for large research projects. Since those agencies are invariably funded through tax dollars, in a sense, the public funds a large portion of scientific research. As a publicly funded service, the information gleaned from research should be used in a way that improves the lives of Americans. Secondly, as subject matter experts, scientists are often the only ones who can objectively guide policymakers when they stray from what’s in the public’s best interest.
Even so, it’s easy to understand researchers’ expressed reluctance to engage in advocacy. NPQ has seen time and again how partisan politics have dismantled sound science to push an agenda forward, damaging researchers’ credibility along the way. The issue of climate change is a prime example. In spite of a plethora of evidence indicating that the earth’s temperature is rising, many in the right-wing media reject these facts, dismissing findings of climate change as not “science but propaganda.” So much data has been cherry-picked and misstated that prestigious peer-reviewed journals take into consideration how the public could misconstrue an article before accepting journal submissions. So, one can see how many researchers might get the idea that engaging in advocacy could jeopardize their careers.
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And yet, research on whether scientists are discredited by engaging in policymaking suggests the opposite. Because of the public’s own impartiality, it does not matter whether researchers advocate for policy after the study has been completed. In other words, advocacy does not harm the credibility of scientists—those who believe them still will, and those who do not never have.
Some scientists go so far as to argue that engaging in civic discourse undermines the field of science altogether by injecting politics into what should be an objective, nonpartisan discipline. If advocacy pits conservatives against liberals, the public could begin to distrust all scientific fact, which harms not only the field, but also everyone who benefits from scientific research.
This argument points to a possible misunderstanding of the difference between being partisan and being political, the latter of which scientists are being called upon to do. In reference to the University of California system’s lawsuit against the Trump administration, Dorgelo says, “That university community is having a very loud political voice and we need more of that: a willingness to weigh in and to advocate for fact and evidence-based policies. That is not a partisan action, yet culturally it is something that I have seen the academic community being hesitant to do.”
Those who are partisan form their opinions and advocate for policy based on party lines. On the other hand, one can be political and advocate for policy that may or may not align with any party. Evidence-based policymaking is the antithesis of partisanship. It calls on us to “look at the facts,” as opposed to blindly following ideology.
Whether scientists feel a personal responsibility to engage in advocacy or not, it is undeniable that science and evidence-based policy is under attack by the current administration. As trusted, objective experts, their voices are needed now more than ever.—Sheela Nimishakavi