Flying Fish

Crossing Boundaries
by Nicole Carlozo -- March 10th, 2011

When scientists embrace environmental advocacy, united fronts are sometimes hard to come by.

Science and advocacy. Some say they go together like oil and water, cats and dogs, democrats and republicans. How does the Nicholas School view the science-policy nexus?

A few weeks ago, a debate sprung from the Nicholas School blogosphere and into my inbox. Although the subject matter captured my interest, I remained silent due to papers, projects, and other academic responsibilities. But with the freedom of Spring Break, I give you my two cents.

The catalyst: Dean Chameides’ Green Grok blog Curiouser and Curiouser: How the Hill Is Handling Being in the Hole.

The Nicholas School community didn’t take offense with the views expressed through the blog, but with the manner of their communication. Three themes jumped out at me as I read email after email:

  1. What role should scientists play in policy decision making? Is the role of “policy advocate” appropriate?
  2. If we are to reach out and advocate for environmental policies, what is the most appropriate language or tone in which to foster dialogue?
  3. Does the Nicholas School community view the Green Grok as a voice of the institution and a reflection of our views as a whole? If so, is it the proper communication vessel for personal advocacy positions?

When science and advocacy mix, forging a sustainable future may be more difficult than we’d like to admit. Rarely are individuals on exactly the same page, let alone two policymakers. Just within our small community, many views were argued and refuted.

Let’s tackle each question in turn.

1. The Science Advocacy Balance

It’s difficult to separate science and advocacy at a “School of the Environment,” and sometime I wonder if a boundary truly exists at all. But in my 6 months here, I haven’t spent any time discussing the proper role of scientists in advocacy situations. The public often looks to scientists as impartial bystanders – providing information from which politicians make decisions. Are scientists allowed to express their personal values and opinions while presenting their science, or should that science be allowed to speak for itself? And if it is tainted with policy preferences, does it still embody truth?

These questions are even more complicated for students of Environmental Management. Many of us don’t have narrow scientific disciplines. In our careers, we’ll use third party scientific findings to make management decisions. What role do we play in the science advocacy discourse?

The proper place for advocacy within academia has been discussed in numerous forums. In The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Robert Pielke Jr. discusses four possible roles for scientists: the pure scientist, science arbiter, issue advocate, and honest broker. The honest broker provides scientific information that supports numerous policy choices, from which policymakers can make decisions. This semester I’m taking a class called America’s Climate Choices. The word “choices” jumps out at me and deserves reflection. If we have choices, as the concept of the honest broker insinuates, then how do we make the right choice? What if politicians decide to ignore the “best available” science? More importantly, do we, as students of the environment, have a right to advocate for a favorite choice?

I believe we have a right to advocate, if that advocacy is done in the correct forum.

2. Tone versus Spark

Personally, I believe informative, respectful tones and approaches will get us further with some audiences more than others.  As I read the Dean’s controversial blog post, I could taste the sarcasm spilling off the screen. Will sarcasm foster cross-discipline dialogue or stifle it? While some parties might feel inclined to answer sarcasm with rebuttals, I think most would simply write it off as “environmental activism” and ignore the argument all together.

As an aside, although I personally disagree with the use of sarcasm in reference to religion’s part in this dialogue, I commend the Dean’s acknowledgment of religion’s role in the discussion. We must recognize that public perceptions of God and religious values play a role in daily living and politics. This reality is often at odds with science’s role in decision-making, and so it remains a controversial topic that cannot be pushed aside.

3. Advocacy Avenues and Institutional Representation

Does the Nicholas School community view the Green Grok as a voice of the institution, and if so, do personal views have a place there? Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer for this question, although I think the concern is well-founded. As a blogger for From the Trenches, I understand that I represent the Nicholas School community. That being said, I acknowledge that blogs are meant as avenues of discussion and debate. Consequently, not every student or faculty member will agree with 100% of my ramblings. Political, academic, or otherwise, my views are my own. The same can be said for any blogger.

Final Thoughts

As a student, I would love to see more discussion about the proper role of scientists on the Hill or within any advocacy scene. Just this year, AAAS was awarded a NSF grant for a “Workshop on Advocacy in Science” to explore science advocacy issues such as “the definition and boundaries of advocacy as it might be applied to scientists in the policy arena, the normative aspects of such advocacy and any existing guidelines, and the need for education on advocacy for scientists and students.” Perhaps further dialogue will illuminate answers to the questions that surfaced from last month’s viral debate.


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