Tag: March for Science

Can March for Science participants advocate without losing the public’s trust?

As the March for Science nears, questions about whether scientists can and should advocate for public policy become more important. On one hand, scientists have relevant expertise to contribute to conversations about public policy. And in the abstract, the American public supports the idea that scientists should be involved in political debate. On the other hand, scientists who advocate may risk losing the trust of the public. Maintaining that trust is imperative for scientists, both to be able to communicate public risks appropriately and to preserve public funding for research. The Conversation

Little existing research had tested how audiences react when confronted with concrete examples of scientific advocacy. Led by my colleague John Kotcher, my colleagues and I at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication devised an experiment to test these questions in the summer of 2014. Our results suggest there is at least some tolerance for advocacy by scientists among the American public.

Testing a scientist’s perceived credibility

We asked over 1,200 American adults to read the biography and a single Facebook post of a (fictional) climate scientist named Dr. Dave Wilson. In this post, Dr. Wilson promotes his recent interview regarding his work on climate change. We varied the message of this statement to include a range of advocacy messages – from no advocacy (discussing recent evidence about climate change) to clear advocacy for specific policies to address climate change.


We found that perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility – and of the scientific community more broadly – did not noticeably decline when he engaged in most types of advocacy.

When Dr. Wilson championed taking action on climate change, without specifying what action, he was considered equally credible as when he described new evidence on climate change or discussed the risks and benefits of a range of policies. In fact, perceptions of Dr. Wilson’s credibility were maintained even when he argued in favor of reducing carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants.

Only when Dr. Wilson advocated for building more nuclear power plants did his credibility suffer.

Advocacy received differently than partisanship

A nonpartisan message may be well-received.
AnubisAbyss, CC BY-NC-ND

Our study suggests that the American public may not see scientists who advocate for general action on scientific issues as lacking in credibility, nor will they punish the scientific community for one scientist’s advocacy. Yet this study represented only one case of scientific advocacy; other forms of advocacy may not be as accepted by the public. For example, more caution is required when scientists promote specific (unpopular) policies.

Most notably, our study did not test overtly partisan statements from Dr. Wilson. Our research participants saw it that way too; they rated all of Dr. Wilson’s statements as more scientific than political.

The March for Science, however, risks being seen as motivated by partisan beliefs. In that case, scientists may not escape being criticized for their actions. This is especially true if the march is seen as a protest against President Trump or Republicans. In our study, conservatives saw Dr. Wilson as less credible whether he engaged in advocacy or not. If conservatives see the march as a protest against their values, they may dismiss the message of the march – and the messengers – without considering its merits.

This risk is exacerbated when media coverage of the March for Science is considered. In our study, people saw Dr. Wilson promoting his interview in his Facebook post, but were not exposed to the actual interview in which Dr. Wilson made his case for a given policy. Nor were his actions disruptive; a single post on social media is relatively easy to skip or ignore, and Dr. Wilson could frame his interview in the way he liked.

The March for Science will be the opposite. If successful, the march will garner attention from news outlets, who may reframe the purpose of the march.

Balancing the advocacy message

So what can be done to limit accusations of partisan bias surrounding the march?

Researchers can aim for an inclusive message, avoiding the appearance of being just another interest group.
Adam Salsman, CC BY-NC-ND

One way marchers can minimize this possibility is by crafting an inclusive message that resonates with many people, stressing the ways science improves our society and protects future generations. However, the march’s similarity to other explicitly anti-Trump marches may make it hard to avoid a partisan connotation.

Moreover, in our research Dr. Wilson was portrayed as an older white male, matching cultural stereotypes about scientists; he may have had more freedom to engage in advocacy than would female or nonwhite scientists. An inclusive and diverse March for Science may challenge these traditional portrayals of scientists. While many (the authors included) would see that as a desirable objective in itself, it may complicate successful advocacy.

A goal of the March for Science is to demonstrate that science is a nonpartisan issue. It represents a unique opportunity for scientists to highlight the ways in which science improves our society. Scientists participating in the march should emphasize shared values with those who might otherwise disagree – such as the desire to create a better world for our children and grandchildren.

If the event remains a March for Science, rather than a march against a party or group, the chances increase that it will effectively focus attention on the importance of scientific research.

Emily Vraga, Assistant Professor in Political Communication, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo Credit: Balloon Juice

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Scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea – here’s why

The April 22 March for Science, like the Women’s March before it, will confront United States President Donald Trump on his home turf – this time to challenge his stance on climate change and vaccinations, among other controversial scientific issues. The Conversation

But not everyone who supports scientific research and evidence-based policymaking is on board. Some fear that a scientists’ march will reinforce the sceptical conservative narrative that scientists have become an interest group whose findings are politicised. Others are concerned that the march is more about identity politics than science.

From my perspective, the march – which is being planned by the Earth Day Network, League of Extraordinary Scientists and Engineers and the Natural History Museum, among other partner organisations – is a distraction from the existential problems facing the field.

Other questions are far more urgent to restoring society’s faith and hope in science. What is scientists’ responsibility for current anti-elite resentments? Does science contribute to inequality by providing evidence only to those who can pay for it? How do we fix the present crisis in research reproducibility?

So is the march a good idea? To answer this question, we must turn to the scientist and philosopher Micheal Polanyi, whose concept of science as a body politic underpins the logic of the protest.

Body politic

Both the appeal and the danger of the March for Science lie in its demand that scientists present themselves as a single collective just as Polanyi did in his Cold War classic, The Republic of Science: Its Political and Economic Theory. In it, Polanyi defended the importance of scientific contributions to improving Western society in contrast to the Soviet Union’s model of government-controlled research.

Polanyi was a polymath, that rare combination of natural and social scientist. He passionately defended science from central planning and political interests, including by insisting that science depends on personal, tacit, elusive and unpredictable judgements – that is, on the individual’s decision on whether to accept or reject a scientific claim. Polanyi was so radically dedicated to academic freedom that he feared undermining it would make scientific truth impossible and lead to totalitarianism.

The scientists’ march on Washington inevitably invokes Polanyi. It is inspired by his belief in an open society – one characterised by a flexible structure, freedom of belief and the wide spread of information.

A market for good and services

But does Polanyi’s case make sense in the current era?

Polanyi recognised that Western science is, ultimately, a capitalist system. Like any market of goods and services, science comprises individual agents operating independently to achieve a collective good, guided by an invisible hand.

Scientists thus undertake research not to further human knowledge but to satisfy their own urges and curiosity, just as in Adam Smith’s example the baker makes the bread not out of sympathy for the hunger of mankind but to make a living. In both cases this results in a common good.

There is a difference between bakers and scientists, though. For Polanyi:

It appears, at first sight, that I have assimilated the pursuit of science to the market. But the emphasis should be in the opposite direction. The self coordination of independent scientists embodies a higher principle, a principle which is reduced to the mechanism of the market when applied to the production and distribution of material goods.

Gone the ‘Republic of Science’

Polanyi was aligning science with the economic model of the 1960s. But today his assumptions, both about the market and about science itself, are problematic. And so, too, is the scientists’ march on the US capital, for adopting the same vision of a highly principled science.

Does the market actually work as Adam Smith said? That’s questionable in the current times: economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller have argued that the principle of the invisible hand now needs revisiting. To survive in our consumerist society, every player must exploit the market by any possible means, including by taking advantage of consumer weaknesses.

To wit, companies market food with unhealthy ingredients because they attract consumers; selling a healthy version would drive them out of the market. As one scientist remarked to The Economist, “There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published”.

It is doubtful that Polanyi would have upheld the present dystopic neo-liberal paradigm as a worthy inspiration for scientific discovery.

Polymath Michael Polanyi.
Author unknown/Wikimedia

Polanyi also believed in a “Republic of Science” in which astronomers, physicists, biologists, and the like constituted a “Society of Explorers”. In their quest for their own intellectual satisfaction, scientists help society to achieve the goal of “self-improvement”.

That vision is difficult to recognise now. Evidence is used to promote political agendas and raise profits. More worryingly, the entire evidence-based policy paradigm is flawed by a power asymmetry: those with the deepest pockets command the largest and most advertised evidence.

I’ve seen no serious attempt to rebalance this unequal context.

A third victim of present times is the idea – central to Polanyi’s argument for a Republic of Science – that scientists are capable of keeping their house in order. In the 1960s, scientists still worked in interconnected communities of practice; they knew each other personally. For Polanyi, the overlap among different scientific fields allowed scientists to “exercise a sound critical judgement between disciplines”, ensuring self-governance and accountability.

Today, science is driven by fierce competition and complex technologies. Who can read or even begin to understand the two million scientific articles published each year?

Elijah Millgram calls this phenomenon the “New Endarkment” (the opposite of enlightenment), in which scientists have been transformed into veritable “methodological aliens” to one another.

One illustration of Millgram’s fears is the P-test imbroglio, in which a statistical methodology essential to the conduit of science was misused and abused for decades. How could a well-run Republic let this happen?

The classic vision of science providing society with truth, power and legitimacy is a master narrative whose time has expired. The Washington March for Science organisers have failed to account for the fact that science has devolved into what Polanyi feared: it’s an engine for growth and profit.

A march suggests that the biggest problem facing science today is a post-truth White House. But that is an easy let off. Science’s true predicaments existed before January 2 2017, and they will outlive this administration.

Our activism would be better inspired by the radical 1970s-era movements that sought to change the world by changing first science itself. They sought to provide scientific knowledge and technical expertise to local populations and minority communities while giving those same groups a chance to shape the questions asked of science. These movements fizzled out in the 1990s but echoes of their programmatic stance can be found in a recent editorial in Nature.

What we see instead is denial toward science’s real problems. Take for instance the scourge of predatory publishers, who charge authors hefty fees to publish papers with little or no peer review. The lone librarian who fought this battle has now been silenced, to no noticeable reaction from the scientific community.

Trump is not science’s main problem today – science is.

Andrea Saltelli, Adjunct Professor Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, University of Bergen

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Should scientists engage in activism?

Have you heard that scientists are planning a march on Washington? The move is not being billed as a protest, but rather as a “celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” although it comes as a direct response to recent policy changes and statements by the Trump administration.

Not everyone thinks the nonprotest protest is a good thing. It’s “a terrible idea,” wrote Robert Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University, in The New York Times. The march, Young said, will just reinforce a belief among some conservatives that “scientists are an interest group,” and polarize the issue, making researchers’ jobs more difficult. Others find that argument less than convincing, pointing out that science and politics have always been intertwined.

As the founders of the blog Retraction Watch and the Center for Scientific Integrity, we often see researchers reluctant to push for or embrace change – whether it’s to the conventional way of dealing with misconduct in journals (which for years was basically to not do so) or addressing problems of reproducibility of their experiments. To the timorous, airing dirty laundry, and letting the public in on the reality of science, could endanger public trust – and funding.

So this isn’t the first time scientists and engineers have voiced similar concerns. Take the example of Marc Edwards and his colleagues at Virginia Tech: Too many people watching the Flint water crisis, they were heroes. After being asked to visit by concerned residents, they found, and announced, that people in the beleaguered city were being exposed to excessive amounts of lead through their tap water. They also launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for water filters for city residents and created a website to push their findings about the hazards of the city’s water supply and shame governments at all levels to act.

If not for their tireless efforts, thousands of children may have been exposed to dangerous amounts of lead for far longer than they already were. Even the Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that it waited too long to sound the alarm. But that’s not exactly how the editor of a leading engineering journal sees things.

In October, a remarkable editorial appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The essay, by the University of California, Berkeley engineering professor and Water Center Director David Sedlak, ES&T’s editor-in-chief, expressed concern that some of his colleagues in the field had crossed the “imaginary line” between scientist and advocate.

“Speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system may be the product of a culture where idealism, personal responsibility, and Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities conspire to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice,” Sedlak wrote.

By becoming “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” In other words, don’t cross Congress – which many scientists already view as hostile to their profession – and risk retaliation in the form of budget cuts. That’s no small pie, either. Through its oversight of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Energy and other agencies and programs, Congress holds the strings to a research purse worth nearly US$70 billion a year.


Let’s take a moment to absorb all that. Some (unnamed but easily identified) scientists, lulled by the media, have cast themselves as superheroes in a struggle against villains born of their own conceit. Their arrogance and vanity threaten to awaken the master, who will punish us all for the sins of a few. We rarely get the opportunity to watch a chilling effect in action, but you can almost see the breath of researchers caught up in a debate over the proper role of scientists in the crisis.

It’s not just engineers who fear speaking out. “We have too often been reluctant to voice our protest, for fear of incurring the [National Institute of Mental Health’s] displeasure (and losing whatever opportunities we still have for funding),” wrote neuroscientist John Markowitz in The New York Times last fall. In a refreshing piece, Markowitz was arguing that “there’s such a thing as too much neuroscience.” As cofounders of Retraction Watch, a blog that focuses on some of science’s nasty episodes, we are occasionally admonished that pointing out cases of fraud – even when we also praise good behavior – will give anti-science forces ammunition.

In some ways, we should be glad scientists are acknowledging these concerns, instead of pretending they’re never swayed by the almighty dollar. But anyone who clings to the notion that science exists in a pure vacuum, untainted by politics, economics or social justice needs also to understand that science is a human endeavor and scientists have the same eyes and ears for injustice and outrage as the rest of us. Although the conduct of science demands honesty and rigor, nowhere is it written that researchers must remain silent when governments or other powerful players either misuse science or suppress findings in the service of harmful policies.

And before Edwards and his efforts on behalf of the Flint community, some scientists have spoken out. Clair Patterson, a physical chemist, put himself on a decades-long collision course with industry when he took on lead poisoning. John Snow earned the ire of Londoners when he removed the pump handle on a cholera-infested well, and wasn’t vindicated until after his death. It took Peter Buxtun several years to stop the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment; he eventually had to leak documents to reporter Jean Heller in 1972.

Edwards and his colleagues, we would argue, are part of a long tradition of bridging the worlds of science and policy. They have been instrumental in bringing not only attention but change to the beleaguered city of Flint. And money: Thanks in part to their pressure, the Senate in September voted overwhelmingly to approve $100 million in aid for Flint, and hundreds of millions more in loans from the Environmental Protection Agency for upgrading municipal water infrastructures and studying exposure to lead.

Tuskegee syphilis study doctor injects a subject with a placebo. Centers for Disease Control

In a stinging rebuke to Sedlak, Edwards and three coauthors – Amy Pruden, Siddhartha Roy and William Rhoads – blasted the critical editorial as a “devastating, self-indictment of cowardice and perverse incentives in modern academia.”

Indeed, scientists who accept funding with the tacit agreement that they keep their mouths shut about the government are far more threatening to an independent academy than those who speak their minds.

Since Nov. 8, it has been painfully clear that science will be playing defense for a while. The United States has never seen a regime so hostile to science and the value of the scientific method. President Donald Trump has declared climate change a “hoax” cooked up by the Chinese. He has flirted seriously with debunked anti-vaccination views and declared that polls (read, data) that are negative about his ambitions are “fake news.”

Science and politics are not always compatible. And science need not always triumph over policy: After all, research shows that steroids improve athletic performance, but we have a compelling political interest to ban them. The same can be said of eugenics. Research must always be ethical, and ethics is a conversation that includes scientists and policymakers.

Still, while the two domains are separate, the divide is and should be, bridgeable. As Edwards and his colleagues write, “The personal and professional peril is great, the critics are numerous and vocal, but staying silent is to be complicit in perpetrating injustice. And no matter what may come of the rest of our lives or careers, we are certain of one thing: Flint was a community worth going out on a limb for, and by upholding a just cause, we enhanced the social contract between academics and the public.”

That could easily be said of the March for Science. Except now it’s not just a limb but the entire tree that’s in peril.

The Conversation

Ivan Oransky, Distinguished Writer In Residence, Arthur Carter Journalism Institute, New York University and Adam Marcus, Adjunct Faculty for Advanced Academic Programs, Johns Hopkins University

Photo Credit: Liz Lemon

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.