Scientists can be advocates and maintain scientific credibility

By Dana Nuccitelli | April 12, 2017

Scientists are often hesitant to engage in what might be considered “advocacy,” for fear of losing credibility with the public. But a recent study led by John Kotcher at George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that “climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

The study found that the perceived credibility of a hypothetical scientist did not decline when that scientist advocated for generalities such as a “strong effort” to curb the impacts of climate change—nor did credibility decline if the scientist called for more specific and concrete actions such as “strict limits on carbon emissions from coal power plants.” But perceived credibility did decline when the hypothetical scientist advocated building more nuclear power plants, which are relatively unpopular amongst the American public.

These results suggest that as long as scientists don’t advocate for specific unpopular policies, a range of advocacy positions are available that won’t harm their credibility. For example, polling has shown that most Americans—including Trump voters—support policies to combat climate change. They also think it’s a bad idea to cut scientific research funding, they support clean energy, and they want the government to do more to mitigate climate change risks.

Additionally, there’s been no more important time in recent history for scientists to engage in advocacy on behalf of our science, which is under attack from the current administration. According to the March 16 issue of the journal Science, President Trump proposed a federal budget that would cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency’s science programs by 40 percent, the Energy Department’s Office of Science programs by 20 percent, grants to the main research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by 26 percent, NOAA satellites by 13 percent, the National Institutes of Health by 20 percent, and so on. Trump’s EPA administrator rejects the expert consensus and overwhelming scientific evidence that human carbon pollution is the dominant cause of recent global warming, and has been filling EPA positions with like-minded individuals. President Trump has still only moved to fill one out of 46 key government science and technology positions, and reports indicate that the candidates he’s considering for the position of his science advisor all deny human-caused climate change.

The House of Representatives recently passed two bills that would severely limit the EPA’s ability to issue scientifically-justified regulations. And of course President Trump signed an executive order to roll back a slew of science-based government climate policies.

This month, we have two opportunities to engage in activism to push back against these anti-science policies, in the form of marches. On April 22, there will be a March for Science in Washington DC and other major cities around the country (and the world), and on April 29 there will be a People’s Climate March. The former is a mass expression of support for science in general, and the latter for much-needed climate policies. Both subjects have widespread general support among the American public, and therefore participation by scientists will increase the credibility of the marches without harming the credibility of individual scientists or the scientific community.

To my fellow scientists who still hesitate to engage in advocacy, I would ask: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Our ability to conduct research and for the government to use our findings to implement regulations and policies that will protect public health and welfare is under attack and may soon face severe erosion. This is true despite the fact that most Americans trust scientific experts, support their research, and want the government to take more action based on the implications of that research. If we’re to preserve our ability to do this important work, and for policymakers to act on our findings, we must take action to defend science.

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