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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Scientists pride themselves on being objective in their outlook. While this conceit serves to lend authority to their work, its reality fades when we consider the humans behind the job title. Each has values, passions and experiences that shape their decisions in life and research most cancer researchers have had someone in their family who has had cancer. However, in fields that directly inform major political action, the boundaries that delineate research, advocacy and activism are delicate.

Climate and conservation scientists are acutely aware of the potential dangers of global ecological change, and so take on responsibility for guiding society away from harm. But accusations of agendas and politicisation often detract from their message and prevent effective action from being taken. How should scientists engage in a partisan political sphere while maintaining the public trust in science that is required for effective, evidence-based policy?

Ideology can corrupt science

In the mid-20th Century, Trofim Lysenko, director of the Institute of Genetics at the USSR’s Academy of Sciences, led an agricultural rebellion against natural selection and Mendelian genetics. He promoted a (Lamarckian) model in which the characteristics of a parent, acquired through its experiences of its environment in its lifetime, could be passed onto its offspring. His determination to demonstrate theories that were compatible with the prevailing Soviet ideology led him and his colleagues to distort evidence and draw fantastical conclusions on the potential of crop techniques. This led to millions of people losing their lives in famines across the USSR and China. Additionally, around 3,000 biologists were dismissed, imprisoned or executed in trying to stand up to Lysenko.

Such overt ideological distortions of science are largely in the past, but insidious forces continue to degrade the quality of research and diminish the public benefit of science. This is clear in the financing of science. Commercial manipulation of research has led to loss of life from new drugs (see e.g., Voixx trials) and delayed effective action on climate change (see e.g., fossil fuel funded scientists Willie Soon and David Legates). Even when funding is clean, scientists are incentivised to ‘spin’ their research in the rhetorical jockeying that is part of securing limited research council funds.  

Beyond funding, the current publishing model and its relationship with the media serves to perpetuate specific movements and narratives. Publication bias means that interesting results obscure important negative findings. When results are published that are counter to the prevailing narrative, they are not picked up or circulated meaning their impact on the field and policy is stifled.

Scientists as activists?

The ideal of science as a neutral and value-free pursuit must be maintained but, to improve scientific practice, we must look at the reality of science as a highly political domain within a complex social and political context. What responsibilities do individual scientists have in addressing this? Climate and conservation scientists are often torn as to whether they should engage in political advocacy or activism. 

Many feel their involvement is necessary as traditional political processes operate too slowly to avert the interlinked climate and ecological crises. Others feel unfulfilled too distant from social change if they stick only to their work in the lab or behind the desk. William Laurence, Distinguished Professor and conservation ecologist James Cook University, believes that ‘scientists must actively engage policy makers and the general public, as well as other scientists’. Laurence’s research outputs can often be mapped to more evocative political commentary. There is a worry among some in the field that such a headstrong drive towards specific agendas clouds judgement and risks evidence being selectively massaged to fit the desired narrative.

David Sedlak, Professor of Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley (in J. Environ. Sci. Technol) believes that maintaining trust must come first: ‘[Activism] undermines the standing of academics as objective seekers of truth … [and could] jeopardise the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research. Just because it is simpler for scientists to get by, and get paid, if they do not speak up, does that mean it is the right thing to do?

Some argue that it is possible to maintain credibility while applying political pressure. ‘In my view it is fine for scientists to advocate for change, but they must take care,’ said Simon Lewis, a global change researcher at UCL and the University of Leeds (in PhysicsWorld). ‘Scientists must do their best to be as scrupulously honest in analysing the data and reporting it as is humanly possible. But that should not be traded-off against expressing political opinions in a separate arena. Being clear when you are speaking as a scientist and separating when you are speaking as a citizen, or on behalf of a group can help’.

Practising such ‘care’ may be difficult given the subconscious biases that influence individuals’ decision making. William Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Cambridge, is sceptical: ‘The question is, can you really wear different “hats”? It is very difficult to do so and others can’t perceive it when you switch from one to another’. David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI), sees more room for impassioned researchers but notes that, ‘Often researchers and research institutions have a mission, so it is important to recognise when research is done for conservation as opposed to research on conservation’.  There is undoubtedly a great diversity of motivations among climate and conservation scientists, but should this be celebrated or constrained?

The truth is that the most profound, positive change has happened when scientists (especially women) have chosen to speak up and take an active role in the political sphere. Rachel Carson, American marine biologist and author of the seminal Silent Spring (1962), is credited with kickstarting the environmentalist movement. Her contributions helped to generate the atmosphere that allowed for landmark legislation, including the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Air Quality (1967) and Clean Air (1970) Acts, and the ban of DDT (1972). Wangarĩ Maathai, Kenyan biologist and environmental activist, advocated for indigenous grass roots environmental conservation and established the Green Belt Movement (1977). In recognition of her contributions, in 2004, she became the first African woman and first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Building a fair, trustworthy system

Scientists have a responsibility to facilitate evidence-based policy that provides social and environmental benefits to all; good science and good politics go hand-in-hand. This requires us to aspire to the ideal of separation between politics and science, while recognising the messiness of the society in which science operates.

To start, scientists must advocate more strongly for scholarly autonomy worldwide. Solidarity should be shown to scientists, such as those in Brazil, who are having their independence restricted. Scientists should push for greater democratisation of science and work to remove barriers, such as publication fees, that might prevent scientists from the Global South from engaging in discourses. Through greater democratisation, valuable indigenous knowledge can be allowed to come into the mainstream and lead innovative policies that protect globally significant ecosystems.

Scientists should push for institutional innovations that can hold politicians and the media to account. In the UK, a royal charter, such as that which allows the BBC to exist, could support an independent, transparent organisation that allows scientists to critique policy and media output while not fearing government pressure or censorship.

It is extremely difficult for climate and conservation scientists to balance ideals with the messy reality in the face of global crises. More needs to be done as part of their training to help them navigate the difficult landscape.

Humanising scientists

Scientists come from an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Each scientist has to use their own judgement when deciding their level of political engagement and has a responsibility to guard against their own biases. Ultimately, for there to be a healthy relationship between science and politics we need greater empathy for individual scientists as feeling humans. On a daily basis, climate, and conservation scientists deal with distressing issues while attempting to balance the need for action with the ideal of neutrality. Instead of the unreasonable, puritanical expectations of objectivity, we should aim to better understand and communicate their tensions and dilemmas. By being transparent when decisions are made based on values, and sharing the lives of scientists through public outreach, we can build the trust needed to implement transformative, evidence-based policy.

James Ball is a third-year PhD student at the Department of Plant Sciences and Magdalene College. Artowk by Anna Germon.