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Should Environmental Scientists Be Advocates for Environmental Policy

Should environmental scientists be advocates for environmental policy? To a wildlife ecologist from Michigan Technological University and an environmental ethicist from Michigan State University, the answer is a resounding yes.

“Scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities and in a justified and transparent manner,” say John A. Vucetich and Michael P. Nelson in an advance online publication of a paper in the journal Conservation Biology. The paper is titled “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How.”

Vucetich is a wildlife ecologist in Michigan Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Nelson is an environmental ethicist jointly appointed in Lyman Briggs College, the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State.

“Much of what has been written about advocacy assesses its appropriateness without adequately assessing its nature,” they observe. In a systematic catalog and critique of advocacy arguments—pro and con—Vucetich and Nelson examine the nature of several key arguments, including

  • Scientific credibility.
  • The ability to conduct objective scientific research.
  • The nature of science itself.
  • The personal and professional costs associated with advocacy.
  • The belief that science and advocacy are alike.
  • Social harm that could come from a failure to advocate.
  • All citizens, including scientists, have a moral obligation to advocate.

“Most of the arguments, whether for or against advocacy, are characterized by some significant deficiency,” they say.

Take scientific credibility, for example. Those who oppose scientists acting as advocates often say that advocacy undermines a scientist’s credibility. Vucetich and Nelson disagree.

“As long as a scientist’s work is transparently honest, the scientific community is obligated to, and almost always does, confer credibility,” they write. “Scientific credibility is not the same as effectiveness. One may have scientific credibility and be effective or ineffective at advocacy.”

Vucetich and Nelson also analyze and reject most of the usual arguments favoring scientists acting as policy advocates

”Only one argument seems robustly sound and valid,” Vucetich and Nelson say. That is, as citizens first and scientists second, scientists have a responsibility to use their scientific data and insights to guide policy decisions. The ethicist and the scientist call it an ideal marriage of philosophical ethics and scientific commitment to data collection and analysis.

“Our assessment calls for more active participation by scientists in matters of policy,” they conclude. “Broad participation will undoubtedly result in disagreement among good scientists and will substantially complicate the policy-making process. However, our goal here should not be simplicity, but rather the betterment of society.”

Mark Hixon, a leading coral reef ecologist at Oregon State University, endorses the pair's conclusion. "Nelson and Vucetich's excellent paper is the first rigorous analysis of the logic underlying arguments for and against scientists participating in environmental policy debates," he said. "The extent to which a scientist engages in advocacy is a personal decision that should be respected by peers, given that there are real benefits and costs, as well as responsibilities, involved. I personally decided that I did not abdicate my citizenship when I became scientist, so I attempt to live a personal precautionary principle: The risk of not participating in policy debates--severe environmental degradation--is far greater than the risk of participating."

Vucetich’s research is supported in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF does not necessarily endorse the ideas expressed in this paper.

Michigan Technological University is a leading public research university, conducting research, developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers nearly 130 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering, forestry and environmental sciences, computing, technology, business and economics, natural and physical sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences.

Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

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