At what point should a person move from explaining their scientific discoveries towards advocating their importance in policy development?  And is science communication simply a form of advocacy itself? These are some of the thorny questions posed to Michael Nelson, associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University, in “Do Scientists Have a Special Responsibility to Engage in Political Advocacy?” by Matthew C. Nisbit.

In the interview, Nelson refers to his paper, co-authored with John Vucetich entitled “On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How” in which he finds that “advocacy is nearly unavoidable, and that scientists, by virtue of being citizens first and scientists second, have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities, to improve their advocacy abilities, and to advocate in a justified and transparent manner.”

It is still not an easy question though. Really it boils down to what we are prepared to accept in society from our scientists. Naturally we want them to carry out research to better society for the future. And we need them to explain and teach their research to future generations. Of all this there is little doubt nor controversy. That said, even here the lines get blurry: What kind of research “is for the betterment of society”? Can that even be defined across cultures? Without descending into postmodernity, this can be difficult to answer, until you realise that the answer can be left at the basic, common-sense level for our purposes: water, shelter, food, health. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So long as we allow science to attack those problems, there should be no grounds for rational argument over a proper deployment of scientific endeavour.

Even then, we have to remember that military research and space research share a common trait, whilst turning our minds towards defence or the cosmos, we have discovered many things that have benefited society. Should we throw the baby out with the proverbial bath water?

So, given that we can’t really decide what scientists should be allowed to research (at a basic level at least), perhaps we might have something to say about how they communicate their findings and the forums in which they communicate.

That means asking what constitutes an acceptable audience for a scientist, and an acceptable style. Leaving aside gross generalisations and misrepresentations made by “scientists” who are clearly trying to sell a product or themselves; it seems that so long as a scientist is elucidating the implications of their work, and so long as someone is listening, then their activities in this are never in vain. One more educated person is always a good thing, even if (or perhaps especially if) that person is a politician. All scientists should probably work harder at communicating their science, or at least engage someone to help them communicate their science.

Is the distinction, then, between education and advocacy, rather than between communication and advocacy? There is little controversy in practicing eduction (leaving aside, for instance, loonies like the creationists whipping up a storm over evolution) however there is some controversy in lobbying governments for funding, and even more in political advocacy of the sort that has been seen in the climate change debates. Scientists fear the impact it will have on their credibility, and there seems to be a strange inverse relationship between public fame and professional respect in the world of science. Does advocacy imply taking sides? And are we really ‘taking sides’ when we simply communicate something with “the power of science” behind us? Why is credibility at stake here?

“Who’s side are you on?” is an unfortunate question to ask of a scientist, yet this is increasingly the question that a more sceptical public asks. It may be an unfounded question, but that question may illuminate the path for scientists:  Argument is a natural human device, and science is done by humans. If you are going to advocate, remember that you may be seen as on a particular side. Tread carefully, but stick to the science. If your life’s work in science is important to you, remember to tell someone about it, and remember that after the facts there is opinion (and even before the facts there was theory). If you have a contribution to make, do it robustly, and remember that we’re only human. It’s good to be passionate.