Can scientists be simultaneously ‘engaged’ and non-partisan?

I find myself very irked reading Roger Pielke Jr.’s take on a recent op-ed piece in Nature on the need for scientists, and more importantly, scientific institutions, to project an image of non-partisanship and being ‘above the fray’ in public policy discussions.  First off, while both authors direclty insinuate that scientific institutions and the scientific community as a whole have demonstrated a growing leftward bias, I don’t see either present any real evidence to support that assertion.  As for whether or not it’s appropriate for individual scientists to express political opinions or engage in advocacy, I’m surprised this topic hasn’t arisen previously on this blog; it’s something that working with ecologists (one of the most publically-engaged of all science disciplines in my experience) for the last few years has left me keenly aware of.  Dr. Pielke has been aggressive about highlighting potential political biases in the media, the scientific establishment, and in his own field (often to the point of being contrarian, IMHO).  However, this opens up the larger question of the role of scientists in science advocacy and public policy discussions.

Is there a direct role for active scientists to play in policy advocacy on topics relative to their field?  When James Hansen shows up at anti-fossil fuel industry protests, does it lessen the credibility of his latest research on the observation of climate change?  Is it any better to make the case indirectly as an adviser to independent advocacy groups?  If not, what’s a scientist, trained to be free-thinking and to break through existing paradigms in search of knowledge and understanding, to do when they feel that their hard-won results are being kept away from a public that needs to know them?

This debate is especially pertinent in that it takes place against the backdrop of a distinct, documentable shift of one of the US political parties to the right.  On the issue of climate change in particular, the last two years has seen a variety of cases of prominent Republicans mocking, discrediting, and even trying to legally persecute (and this guy might be a governor next year!) the scientific community whose results they find politically inconvenient, a phenomenon that’s acknowledged by moderates in the party.  To the extent that this faction has made a tactical choice to ignore, discredit, or even attack the scientific process and scholarly community in pursuit of particular donor groups and voting blocs, is it not a case of false equivalence for that community not to speak up?  And given this environment, doesn’t it seem a bit much to take individual scientists to task for writing an op-ed, making a donation, or otherwise expressing a preference for the political party who’s leaders are not attacking their livelihood?

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2 Responses to Can scientists be simultaneously ‘engaged’ and non-partisan?

  1. Paul says:

    I thought of this post as I was reading this:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/issue-3/wicked-polarization/

    Here is a taste, but you should read the entire thing..
    Rittel and Webber called these new social and environmental problems “wicked” because experts could only define them in relationship to background solutions, which are themselves shaped by underlying values and a vision of the good society. Since we hold different values, we have different views of wicked problems. “What comprises problem-solution for one,” Rittel and Webber noted, “is problem-generation for another.” As a result, disagreements over social and environmental policy cannot be resolved by experts, who in many ways make them more intractable. “The expert is also the player in a political game, seeking to promote his private vision of goodness over others’.”

  2. Pingback: More on scientific neutrality vs. advocacy | Energy and the Future

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