Friday, February 21, 2014

Pro: Scientists Should be Advocates?

Source: SMITH, A. (1975). The New Scientist-Advocates. Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists31(2), 16-18.

 Representative Mike McCormack

Representative Mike McCormack, a chemist, of Washington spoke at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers in December of 1975. He addressed the crowd by saying “I propose to challenge you, as scientists and engineers, to assume a more active role as responsible citizens, helping develop public understanding on this critically important subject [of energy production and environmental protection].” Rep. McCormack wanted scientists to be committee staffers on Capitol Hill to ensure that legislation was compatible with the latest scientific findings. This type of science advocacy serves the nation because scientists have the best training to understand the latest research and discoveries. More of today’s pressing issues are technical in nature and this requires advance training to interpret results, and scientists have the best training to do this. By not being involved in the policy process or advocating science, scientist leave the public and politicians uniformed; this increases the risk that decisions will be ill-informed or ineffective policies may be implemented. Untimely, taxpayers and society pay for these mistakes, but this does not have to be the case. The scientific community can reduce these risks by becoming advocates and inform the public about scientific findings.

In August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard wrote a letter to President Roosevelt about recent developments in nuclear research in Europe and its potential consequences. Einstein and Szilard were concerned that Germany may attempt to recreate a nuclear chain reaction. In turn, Germany may have the power to develop a nuclear weapon, which would give it an advantage in war. Einstein urged President Roosevelt to secure a supply of uranium for the U.S. and for the government to begin funding nuclear research. President Roosevelt created the Advisory Committee on Uranium, which would be superseded by the Manhattan Project in 1942. This is an example of scientific advocacy that changed the course of history. Whether one agrees or disagrees with nuclear weapons, it is important to realize the impact and influence that Einstein had on President Roosevelt and the creation of the Manhattan Project. Science advocacy played an important role at that time, just as it does in solving today’s problems.  

President Roosevelt's Response


  1. When a scientist becomes an advocate he is no longer objective. It must be stressed the importance of being unbiased when making and promoting your policy and tests. Don't just point of the facts that support your view. its important to point out all sides and leave it to the public to decide. If the tests and presentation are presented to the public as neutral and unbiased, in away they can understand by people with a non scientific background, then a scientist is being objective without promoting his idea for policy. Perhaps presenting to different groups with different view points that both have a history of promoting policy on their own then. he is being objective because he is not letting biased data affect the public. Rather both opposing groups in the public will side with the half of the viewpoint form the data they like and will promote that. For example if a scientist brings unbiased economic and environmental information about a land about to developed and the land has x number wild life on it and estimate x barrels of oil underneath, bringing this information to PETA and BP will have vastly different results. rather he did not seek an particular group he contacted opposing groups and they took the unbiased information and were about making policy.

  2. Although I agree with the idea that scientist are best equip to interpret their own results the historical argument seems to rely on the idea that legislators are open and willing to talk to scientist. While any scientist with information on weapon development may have had the presidents ear during World War II I highly doubt the White House has Nature on speed dial. I would even go to the point of saying Einstein was even less of an advocate than an adviser to the president.

    Under normal circumstances I assume that scientists would have to get grassroot support from a sizable constituency before a representative concerned predominately with reelection would care. There may be exceptions but they are not preventable enough to make absolutist opinions on.