Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pro: The Distillers of Truth

The phrase “ivory tower” often accompanies discussions of the social impacts of science as reference to the inaccessibility and isolation of the scientific community in relation with the general public. The technical jargon and expertise necessary to understand the content of many scientific journals is a blockade that requires exposure and dedication in order to surpass. That being said, the implications of certain studies (especially those that involve public and environmental health) have the potential to affect or address public wellbeing. If the sources of funding for these salient research topics includes taxpayer dollars, it is tantamount that the findings receive a fair representation in the arena of policy formation. It is foolish to think that the findings will passively find their way to offices of individuals with the power to implement plans that take them into consideration. This should be an active process that requires advocates that can speak to the relevance of the findings of particular studies. Scientists often develop particular foci in their work leading to specialization in a specific subset of their larger field. This could be justification for why scientists should not be the individuals advocating for their research since their training is, in fact, too focused. In addition, scientists often do not receive formal training in communicating scientific messages to the public or in translating science into policy and there are obvious time limitations to being able to both conduct in-depth research and advocate for related policy initiatives (Nelson 2009). That being said, scientists themselves are the most connected with the findings and are the best individuals available to isolate the most compelling data from their research and suggest policy measures in cases where direct action is needed. Even if this means the use of a middle-person to do the bulk of the advocating, scientists should feel compelled to fulfill a social contract of sharing the findings from research that involves the public interest (even when the public may not understand or appreciate the research) which includes collaboration with fellow researchers and experts in the affected areas (Carr 2013). Scientists are a subset of community residents who possess the ability to express their concerns to relevant legislative bodies, but ultimately, this is a personal and contextualized decision.

Nelson, M. P., & Vucetich, J. A. (2009). On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How. Conservation Biology, 23(5), 1090-1101. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01250.x

Carr, J. (2013). Researchers Take on a New Role: Advocate for Profession, Science. Bioscience, 63(1), 12. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.1.4


  1. This post would benefit from more concrete examples of positive advocacy in science. Also, the section from "Scientists often develop particular foci..." extending to, "...advocate for related policy initiatives" is an argument against the rest of the post. This is not in itself bad if it is properly concluded and brought back into the main topic, but this particular section seemed jarring and unconcluded. Finally, there should be a greater differentiation between advocacy as informing the public and advocacy as pushing for specific change.

  2. The point you make that scientists may not have the qualifications to push certain research is a strong one. It challenges the common stereotype that scientists are the final say on truth. There are many small truths that are part of a bigger reality.