For Scientists, Public Engagement Means Finding Their Advocacy Comfort Zone

by Jamie Vernon | Apr 17, 2017

This is a guest post written by Aaron Huertas. 


Thousands of researchers are getting ready to march for science in more than 400 cities around the world. But even as the scientific community galvanizes in the face of censorship and deep budget cuts, researchers are grappling with how they should engage in the political process. As the march approaches, it’s important for scientists and engineers to think objectively about what advocacy means to them and to find their personal comfort zone when it comes to fitting activism, advocacy and political engagement into their careers.

Uncharted territory

It’s easy for scientists to talk past one another when they talk about advocacy.

John Kotcher, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, is one of a few researchers who has put received wisdom about advocacy to the test. “Surprisingly very little research has looked into the topic of advocacy by scientist directly,” he says.

He notes that scientists lack common language and definitions around advocacy. When he and his colleagues tested whether or not making advocacy statements would impact a scientist's perceived credibility, they relied on a rubric from Simon Donner, a climate researcher at the University of British Columbia. Donner argues that science communication tends to fall on a spectrum of advocacy, from needing to find support for one’s own work, to publicly sharing relevant science, to warning about risks, to helping policymakers weigh decisions, to explicitly endorsing specific policy outcomes, to backing specific tactics to achieve those outcomes.

Using mock Facebook posts from a climate researcher, Kotcher and his colleagues found that study participants perceived a scientist as just as credible if they stuck to the facts, warned readers about climate risks, or endorsed emissions reductions from power plants. When the scientists’ Facebook post advocated for relying on nuclear power, they took a slight credibility hit, but Kotcher says it’s not clear why that was the case.

Their research challenges the conventional wisdom that advocacy always comes at the cost of perceived objectivity. But attitudes toward advocacy also vary by field, Kotcher says. Health professionals, for instance, may have different expectations around advocacy given their dedication to improving people’s well-being.

Indeed, when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha - an honorary March for Science co-chair - blew the whistle on lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan’s water, doing so came with political risks. She took on a state government that had falsified data and she prevailed despite public employees’ attempts to dismiss her research. In such cases, the ethical imperative to warn the public about danger is clear. Dr. Hanna-Attisha, herself a first-generation Iraqi immigrant, has also spoken out against the co-called “Muslim ban,” pointing out that more than 10,000 U.S.-licensed physicians graduated from schools in the seven countries targeted by the Trump administration. More than 150 scientific societies have spoken out against the ban, too, noting how it harms not just scientists, but also the communities in which they work.

Tell Your Own Story, Or Someone Else Will Tell it for You

Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate researcher, argues that advocacy is largely unavoidable. Even the idea that science should play a greater role in a policy lubBoilingwaterdebate can rest on a set of judgments that audiences outside the scientific community might not share. Schmidt urges his fellow researchers to be transparent about their beliefs, their values and their opinions and to draw distinctions between their scientific research results and their personal views. When scientists fail to tell their side of the story, he cautions, audiences can fill in the blanks with inaccurate ones, such as the idea that scientists are personally enriched by public grants.

For Josh Shiode, a senior government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), such accurate storytelling is critical for effective communication, regardless of where scientists sit on the advocacy spectrum.

“Advocacy is engaging with people who are not part of your field and talking about why what you do is important,” he says, whether that’s talking to a Rotary Club or meeting with a Congressional staffer.

Shiode often points to National Institutes of Health-funded research, which found that gently massaging rat pups with small brushes improves their health. It’s the kind of research some policymakers might deride as wasteful. But it eventually led to effective medical treatments for premature babies, cutting hospital stays for them by an average of six days.

To develop a better story sense, Shiode urges researchers to follow science writers like Ed Yong and organizations like Story Collider. AAAS also works with Randy Olson, a scientist-turned filmmaker, who has written extensively about the power of accurate storytelling.

Approaching Advocacy with Humility

Peter Loge, a former Obama-era Food and Drug Administration appointee and a veteran of several Capitol Hill offices, says scientists who engage in the policy process should recognize that science is part of a bigger picture.

Scientists, he says, commit the same “sins” many other interest groups do, insisting that policymakers should simply adopt their values. Scientists usually want to solve “cool, interesting problems,” he says, but the benefits of funding scientific research, while evident to scientists, can often seem far-off to elected leaders, their staff, and voters.

It’s therefore a mistake, he says, for scientists to assume policymakers are being stupid or venal when they fail to prioritize a scientific view of the world. “Scientists have to be willing to believe the people with whom they’re working and they are advising are good people with the best interest of the country at heart,” he says. Policymakers “are weighing things that scientists may not fully appreciate and with which scientists may or may not agree.”

Loge urges scientists to focus on the immediate benefits communities receive from their work - think jobs, investments, and clean water - as well as the long-term gains we all enjoy from publicly funded science and evidence-based policy.

Indeed, the most important voices in the March for Science may not be the scientists themselves. It may be the people outside the scientific community who are joining them: farmers who work with agricultural extension offices, coastal business owners who rely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, grandparents who remember life before the polio vaccine.

And the people of Flint, who are still waiting for clean water.

Because when scientists identify how their research benefits society, they can become not just advocates for their own work, but advocates for the communities they serve, too.

Aaron Huertas is an independent science communicator who lives and works in Washington, DC. He runs, serves as co-boss for Nerd Nite DC and volunteers with the March for Science.

Update: John Kotcher was originally listed as a graduate student and research assistant at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. His title has been revised.

Image one: 500 Women Scientists rallying during the Women's March outside the National Air and Space Museum (Source: Christy Till, via Twitter)

Image two: Former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco demonstrates the effects of carbon dioxide on ocean acidification during a Congressional hearing. (Source: Office of Sen. Ed Markey.)
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