Tuesday, February 25, 2014

CON: Scientists Should Not Be Advocates

                Scientists should not practice advocacy in terms of promoting particular policy goals for several reasons, including the fact that scientists are no less biased in the result they would like to see than other stakeholders, and that bias can jeopardize the important role of science in policy.  Science is very important for policy as it informs the public and policy makers of the current state of the subject of the policy and can continue to study and inform as the policy is implemented to test effectiveness of a chosen policy goal.  If scientists promote specific goals in some policies, they risk the reputation of science and the future of its potential impact on policy effectiveness.  If, however, scientists perform their studies and share their results with other scientists and the public as they are taught, the results of the studies may speak for themselves, at least to different stakeholder groups.

 For example, a study on the effects of the Deep Sea Horizon Oil Spill on a species of tuna, discussed in a February 2014 BBC article found that individuals present or developing during the oil spill experienced heart problems as a result (Amos 2014).  The scientists involved in the study discovered the cause of the heart problems: the blocking of a key pathway for the development of the heart’s ability to beat correctly resulting from contact with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the oil (Amos, 2014).  They also suggested a further area of study based on these findings would be the effect on humans by PAHs in air pollution because the same pathway that leads to the heartbeat of the tuna is present in humans (Amos, 2014).  The scientists in this study did not advocate for any specific policy such as reduction of fossil fuels, stricter car emission regulations, etc.  In fact, it was the author of the article, not the quoted scientists who mentioned that car exhausts put PAHs into the air we breathe (Amos, 2014). 

Despite the scientists merely stating the results of their study, there are many policy implications that other stakeholders can take from it and use to make recommendations that scientists can then study for effectiveness without risking science’s reputation.  While it is important that scientists continue to study issues that are relevant to policy, and for other scientists to continue evaluating those studies and the science used in policy, that should their role.  Such as role does not require the scientist to be an advocate at the same time, and in fact may be detrimentally affected if advocacy by the scientist is pursued.


 Amos, J.  (2014).  Tuna hearts ‘affected by oil spill’.  BBC News, 14 February.  Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26184116. 

Skeptical Swedish Scientists Blog. Retrieved from http://skepticalswedishscientists.wordpress.com/scientific-method/.


  1. In my opinion, a flaw that I see within your argument is that you state that the author of the article and not the scientists themselves that reported the cause, however, an author has to collaborate with a scientist in order convey their research. If you state that scientists would be biased toward their results in decisions of policy making, then I have to also point out that an author or any writer is biased in their own work. They typically write prose articles, and what tone is within a prose article other than a subjective opinion and then facts. Anyone who wants to communicate scientifically has to step back from their work and then approach it again with one goal at mind: to communicate to the public efficiently and effectively in a non-biased manner.

  2. I think this presents an interesting an example of science and advocacy. Because the scientists presented their research in a straightforward and unbiased manner, others were able to draw interpretations from the data and help develop the corresponding policy. However, the one concern that I see is promoting the issues at hand. Because the oil spill was an event that garnered nationwide attentions, it is understandable that the surrounding issues would gain attention. So it would be interesting to see how or if other areas could be promoted to develop policies without scientists resorting to advocacy.

  3. In my opinion your argument contradicted itself a bit because the example you gave showed that scientists are unbiased when presenting the facts on the oil spill affect on tuna; however you also mentioned earlier that they can be biased due to their stakeholders. While it is true that they can be biased due to stakeholders, I believe a way around it is to have multiple objective studies on a said topic rather than using one that is associated with the stakeholder. As long as scientists don't mix their feelings in with their factual scientific findings, they can basically be another author to write articles and present his recommendation as a scientist. It is then up to readers to agree/ disagree with them or not based on his argument and the unbiased research he has ( or other people's research on the same topic).

  4. When scientists publicize their research and make suggestions for future studies or policy recommendations, it does not mean they are risking their reputation as scientists. They are experts in their field of work and should be able to suggest future implications based on their area of research. When scientists articulate their findings to a nonscientific audience, they should provide their expert recommendations, because it provides the general public with a scientific perspective of the matter at hand. In my opinion, issues would only arise if the scientists tried to provide suggestions outside of his/her field of expertise, or, tried to combine scientific facts with suggestions. Scientists know how to present research objectively first, and then to provide further implications once all the facts are laid out as this is the nature of science as a field of work. As such, scientific advocacy should work in the same way without compromising credibility.

  5. The argument is solid and I really have only two comments: Firstly, how much study has been done on the relationship between scientific advocacy and public trust? I feel there are a lot of other intervening factors here that can influence the public's opinion on scientists. Secondly, scientific observations tend only to be translated into public change in industries/markets where there is an economic incentive involved (such as in medicine or where direct harm towards human beings is implicated). What should scientists do in cases such as conservation biology and ecology, where no company or policy-maker has any prior knowledge/desire to involve themselves in an issue?