MEAM Debate on Mixing Science with Advocacy: What Are the Risks and Responsibilities When Scientists Advocate for Particular Resource Management Policies?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

Recent issues of MEAM covered the central role of science in EBM, including whether science should drive the process or just inform it (MEAM 4:1, 4:2). What was not addressed is what should drive or inform the science. Everyone, including scientists, holds particular biases: pro-conservation, pro-industry, etc. And these biases, if not controlled, can affect the science generated to support EBM. The result is a mix of science and advocacy.

In EBM, there is a place for advocacy and there is a need for science, with a large gray area in between. Some practitioners prefer that scientists avoid all temptations to advocate for political positions. Others believe scientists are perfectly placed to advocate for needed policies. Here we present a debate on the subject between two EBM practitioners:

  • Jake Rice, senior national advisor for ecosystem sciences with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans; and
  • Michael Sutton, director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at Monterey Bay Aquarium in the US, and a member of the California Fish and Game Commission.

The framing statement for this debate is:

"Scientists should never allow advocacy to enter their work."


Arguing in support of the framing statement - Jake Rice

When decision-makers have important environmental choices to make, they receive many documents to consider. Many come from interest groups - industries, environmental NGOs, communities - prepared by well-credentialed experts. They all have in common that their contents advocate the objectives of their organizations. They get treated as comparably partisan lobbying. Lobbying is appropriate in a democracy, but it starts with a desired outcome and selectively builds the strongest possible case to support that outcome.

Science advice is different. It is more than just one more document on the decision-maker's desk. It doesn't start with a desired outcome: it starts with a balanced view of all relevant information (including uncertainties). It identifies the consequences and risks associated with each option fully, clearly, and objectively. The conclusions are determined by the evidence, not the objectives of the authors. Correspondingly it has a much more privileged position in decision-making.

Decision-makers don't have to follow science advice. However, their accountability for accepting potentially harmful consequences (even uncertain ones) of their choices is far higher than their accountability for not taking the actions promoted in a document that was designed to advocate some pre-selected outcome. As soon as science advice is developed to advocate a pre-determined outcome, however important that outcome is in the views of those who drafted the advice, it loses any right to a privileged role in decision-making. The science advocates join the industries, communities, etc. as just one more lobby group selectively building a partisan case for something they believe in. Democratic? Yes. Science? No longer.

Arguing against the framing statement - Michael Sutton

My friend Carl Safina, the great ocean scientist and author, once wrote, "Imagine Rome was burning, and Roman scientists confined their studies to the nature of combustion?!" Scientists are not simply another special-interest group; they usually don't take sides in a particular debate unless one side is overwhelmingly supported by science. But they can and should advocate for their science to be incorporated into decision-making. And they can and should focus on solutions rather than just a more precise understanding of the nature of problems.

Science can inform, but seldom drives, decision-making on natural resource issues. Politics usually takes center stage and forces science into the back seat. That's why, for example, many fisheries under management have been decimated or destroyed by overfishing despite repeated warnings from scientists. Time and again, political compromises have violated biological bottom lines. As a result, the history of fishery management in North America can be summed up in two words: serial depletion. Politics trumps science every time, and fishermen and the marine environment are the losers.

One reason science isn't more influential is that most scientists are such poor communicators. They don't receive training in how to communicate with decision makers or journalists. They speak in jargon at public hearings. They write only for peer-reviewed journals and the gray literature, most of which does not influence decisions. Only by escaping from the ivory tower and advocating more effectively for their own science will scientists become more influential in decision-making.

Jake Rice

Mike's thesis includes two myths: politics necessarily forces science into a back seat in decision-making, and most scientists necessarily are poor communicators.

Training to communicate to scientific peers does not make scientists incapable of communicating with journalists and the public. The skills to do that are simpler and more common than the skills to understand marine ecosystems; it is a lack of willingness, not ability, to do the latter well and the former poorly. And if one can communicate, one can inform all the parties in political dialogue about consequences of alternatives.

This puts science in the heart of the dialogue; not on the margins. If our science is sound and central in the debate, it should carry the day. If it isn't good enough to carry the day, what is the justification for winning by playing the same partisan politics that one thinks biases the decision-making process to begin with?

Michael Sutton

"Sound science...should carry the day"? Lawyers are often similarly naïve, thinking that strong laws should necessarily prevail. But we have ample evidence that politics usually controls decision making despite sound science and tough laws. Many of our fisheries have suffered serial depletion notwithstanding ineffectual warnings by scientists who turned out to be right all along.

A few scientists are natural communicators, but most are not. Many focus solely on communicating with their peers rather than those who can really influence decision making such as journalists, politicians, and decision makers themselves. COMPASS, the Communication Partnership for Science of the Sea (www.compassonline.org), has helped scientists learn to communicate better and thus enjoy a far greater role in social discourse. When science migrates from the peer-reviewed journals to the New York Times, and scientists learn how to speak in terms most people can understand, each will have greater influence on decision-making.

Jake Rice

So Mike and I do agree that scientists can communicate effectively when the will is there. Create the will with better incentives; don't distort messages to make them juicier.

It is only partly the strength of laws that make them effective or ineffective. Largely it is strength of evidence brought to adjudications. Prosecutors who try to strengthen their cases by knowingly suppressing evidence face disbarment if caught, just as researchers risk disciplinary action if they knowingly falsify research results. Selectively cherry-picking literature to build arguments for a pre-selected message (advocacy science) is no different, ethically or practically.

I know well that "other considerations" often over-ride good science advice. Politics teaches us, though, that making science advice more strident only makes proponents of "other considerations" more strident, too. Rationality loses even more. Ecological advice integrated with socio-economic considerations brings the debate onto rational grounds, where our chances improve - a better option than advocacy science.

Michael Sutton

Whenever I see calls to "balance" or "integrate" science with socio-economic concerns, I'm reminded of what happened to Atlantic cod. *[See editor's note below.]

Scientists don't have to twist or exaggerate their findings to communicate the implications of their science. Advocates sometimes distort science to suit their agendas. All the more reason scientists should advocate for their science! Being a more effective communicator doesn't require misrepresenting science.

Politics may drive decision-making, but that doesn't mean science is irrelevant. If scientists fear to communicate the implications of their science for humanity, then all decision makers will be left with are the opinions of advocates. Decisions then become merely political compromises between opposing factions. Only when scientists step up and communicate the implications of their science for society is there any hope we will see better decisions. Scientists need to advocate for the accurate interpretation of their work, not leave it to be misrepresented by others.

* [Editor's note: Jake Rice was involved in conducting science on Atlantic cod in the 1980s and 1990s. For his response to this particular comment, including views on cod science and its communication, go here.]

For more information:

Jake Rice, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa, Canada. E-mail: ricej [at] dfo-mpo.gc.ca

Michael Sutton, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California, US. E-mail: msutton [at] mbayaq.org


BOX: Your thoughts?

What did you think of this debate? Do you agree with Jake? Michael? Both of them?

Please let us know: editor [at] meam.net. We will print responses in a future issue.