Thursday, 1 August 2013

Should scientists be neutral?

This is something I have been pondering over recently as I started reading up on ‘issues in nature’ and writing my series about ‘the science behind the nature headlines’ (which alas has been rather stalled due to massive overload on the work front, redecoration of our house and the ever demanding (but ever gorgeous) toddlers.

So as I wrote my article, for example on the badger cull, I read around all the issues, read many of the papers on the subject, wrote it up and pronounced my sentence… ‘I pronounce the badger cull wrong on so many counts’. It’s not even my field. I’m not even sure when I say ‘hey you policy makers why haven’t we got Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for harbour porpoises when we’re supposed to by law’… and that is my area (I even wrote a paper on it here). So should I be an advocate for nature? Or should I just stick to what I do know about my science & not state a position?

This blog post that I’m writing now has been dwelling in my brain for a few months, I’d keep going back to the question and ponder it & leave it to ponder again at a later date. Then today on twitter (I’m a bit behind on my twitter feed) there were several posts about science & advocacy – an excellent post by Carina Wyborn reflecting on the role of advocacy in conservation science ‘Is advocacy still a four letter word?’ and a very thought provoking post in the Guardian by Tamsin Edwards ‘Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies’.  It got me thinking again…

Carina’s blog post had a really good quote that really resonated with me:
‘Those who have the privilege to know, have the responsibility to act’

I work on marine ecosystems – I can see the influence of human activity on our marine ecosystems and worry about it. Should I therefore start advocating change or certain policies based on my best knowledge as a scientist? Tamsin would say no. Our role as scientists is to investigate and report our findings as clearly and coherently as possible so that people can judge for themselves. I can see much logic in this view, and it has been mostly the approach I have used for the majority of my science career to date. I say was, because of late I have found myself getting much more ‘shouty’ and taking a stance on issues because I am and always have been passionate for nature & feel as though I need to take a stand and try to make a difference. If scientists who work in the fields don’t take action on what they can see happening, who can? I say this but I’m still not convincing myself, it makes me uneasy to take a stance. And it is very much for the reasons Tamsin states – I am a scientist working in nature conservation, people might  take what I say as gospel because it’s my field (regardless of the fact my area is very small & my statements on anything other than pelagic marine ecosystems are not much better informed than a well-informed lay person…). So maybe I should go back to being neutral...

So, should I have just stated the facts with the badger cull and not stated an opinion? I mean it’s not my field, and in the end it’s a matter of weighing up the evidence & making a call. So with the badger cull, maybe it would work and have a big impact on reducing bTB in cattle, and we’d get in the position of actually getting on top of the disease? I mean we push our fish stocks to near extinction and people don’t kick up a fuss, so what’s the fuss about killing badgers to save killing even more cattle? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here, in my ideal world we’d have a society & culture in balance with nature, I’m on the side of nature at my core). Also, if scientists take a position (like the very highly respected scientist Lord Krebs) on the badger cull saying they disagree with it, are they wrong to be stating an opinion because they aren’t letting the government weigh up the pros and cons & make a decision that supports the majority?

And what about my area – marine conservation zones? Should we as scientists not take a position on these & let the government go ahead with only designating 32 out of the 127? After all who are we to tell the government that they should be taking money away from, say, healthcare, to have a well-managed network of marine conservation zones… because in the end that’s what it’s down to – cost. Because let’s face it, it’s all very well saying that we’ll have 1, 32, or even all 127 MCZs plus reference areas where no human activity likely to have an impact is banned… but without proper protection and policing we’d end up with ‘paper parks’ – protected on paper but not in reality. And completely down my area of research – why advocate for marine protected areas for such mobile species as harbour porpoises, when we know that these species range over large areas, and are likely to change their distribution as their prey distributions change… i.e. an MPA designated one year could be defunct in a few years once the porpoises move away following their prey*. See, even with information at our fingertips, conservation science is not simple. I am never sure whether the approach I advocate at the time is the right approach to be advocating.

But… I guess one of my arguments for advocating our science is this: governments make the decisions, governments are short-termist (not thinking much beyond their 4 year term), and thankfully we do live in a democracy in the UK, so governments also respond to their people. We saw this with ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight’ – huge numbers of people got behind the no discard principle, and this movement of action by the public had a massive influence in stopping discard practice. Do we, as scientists, have a duty to take up the banner of advocacy to push forward action that we believe is important? E.g. telling the government they are wrong about the badger cull like Lord Krebs & many other scientists did, or telling the government they were wrong not to go forward with all 127 MCZs plus reference zones like Callum Roberts has done. Big industry lobby government, why not scientists?

I leave this to debate, I’m still not sure what approach is best – I have become more of an advocate of late, but an unsure advocate, because I also suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ so never believe I’m right anyway (always feel like there could be something I’m missing which means that my opinion will always be wrong). I feel more comfortable being a neutral scientist, it’s a safer position – ‘state facts, don’t give an opinion, then nobody can criticise you’. Being an advocate is a nerve-racking place to be, so I’d gladly retreat back into scientist mode.  But part of me feels a duty to act, that science without action just isn’t enough…

Hmmm… thoughts?

*Just to say that this is giving conservation of mobile species a very broad brush, there are many other issues! Conservation of mobile marine species definitely warrants its own blog post...


  1. This is a really interesting issue. I'm not working as a scientist, although I've studied ecology. Speaking therefore more as a recipient of information, I do think there needs to be a better balance struck between scientists (completely understandable) desire to remain impartial and being more outspoken about what they believe to be true based on the best evidence available. We are facing a conservation nightmare in the UK (and worldwide facing an anthropogenically caused extinction), which impacts not just on wildlife but on our own well-being as a species. I think scientists should be responding to and communicating this. I do believe that not only is it possible to communicate complex scientific issues strongly whilst maintaining scientific credibility, but that if more scientists did this, politicians might have to start paying attention rather than subjugating science to policy and the next election votes.

    But...don't get me wrong, I do understand that scientists need to balance different evidence and always remain open to changing findings that may impact on theories etc., so I know this is a difficult area. Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree with you - I think we should take the evidence & act on it... we are in the best position to do so. I guess the fine line is when we are commenting on something that isn't our area of research, then it's important to make it clear that it is our informed opinion as non-experts... (and it's not always simple in our own area of research - we can know the facts but not necessarily the solutions e.g. when Tamsin Edwards was asked to comment on the Carbon tax). Hmmm, still plenty to ponder over. I suspect that my approach to this topic will change over time! But I do think it is an important issue to discuss.

  2. Two thoughts on this. Firstly, I think there are situations when making your opinion obvious as a scientist can be disadvantageous. One of the more important (albeit slippery) goals we strive for is truth, and this search is often at the heart of our contract with society. While fact and opinion are not incompatible, the latter can act to obscure the former, from scientists as well as from their audience. Advertising opinion upfront in a paper or report that purports to be dealing with facts and findings might be more honest than hiding said opinion, but it is liable to detract from the apparent reliability of the content.

    That said, I think there are plenty of situations in which the relevant experts should let the public know their opinions. Informal pieces for magazines and papers (and blogs!), public talks, even (judiciously) the discussion section of academic papers, are all appropriate vehicles for expressing one's views. However, I strongly believe that scientists have a duty when sharing their opinions with the wider world to explain why they think as they do, and to make this explanation as clear and honest as they can. Not only will this greatly increase the potential for people to learn from these opinions, and for contrasting opinions to be weighed on the relevant balance, but by doing this, scientists can set an example to other members of their society. There are few things more damaging to the ability of a collective to make good decisions than opinions that are not founded on sound thought.

    1. Really excellent points, thank you!

      On the first point, I agree - personally, I like to think I have an open mind whenever I am approaching my science. I suspect that not all (though I hope the majority) do have this same approach. One thing that I find interesting is that every time we write up our research as a paper we are looking for a nice story out of our results. This is where we can consciously or unconsciously apply our own bias on the interpretation of results (though this can be tempered by peer review). Sometimes results may speak for themselves, but oftentimes interesting results (or more easily understandable results) are more difficult to interpret & rely on the author(s) to interpret the results... this is where subconscious bias may creep in. The most interesting results are highlighted, those less easy to explain may be discussed less, or even not published at all (there are lots of discussions about the lack of published studies with null results!). This is perhaps an aside, but I think all scientists need to try to ensure they are as unbiased as possible & explain all reasoning behind any conclusions (and perhaps be stronger in trying to publish the null results?). Maybe a paper, then an addendum with the bits that didn't make it into the paper? (we are moving more towards open data sources, code, etc.). The clear stories are needed though to make it clearer for the non-specialist to understand the results.

      On the second point, I totally agree & couldn't say it better myself. I think the most difficult area is when we are asked about topics that aren't our specialist area but are our general area (I'm often asked about any topics that are conservation topics but not necessarily anything to do with my area of research e.g. the badger cull). I know from experience, that even a scientist who isn't a specialist in the area can draw incorrect conclusions from their own interpretation of the current literature on a topic - it is only scientists working in that particular area that are truly able to give an informed opinion. So we have to be incredibly careful to state the basis of our conclusions & even by stating the basis of those conclusions we could still be holding the position of the wrong opinion. I guess my only worry is if this means we lose trust with those who listen to us if our opinion is subsequently shown to be wrong. It's a fine balance!