Do Scientists Want to Bridge Science and Society?

So much of what the scientists do is less relevant than it could be. This was the motivation behind the theme at the 2010 AAAS annual meeting, Bridging Science and Society.

Our panel discussed non-regulatory means of enhancing cooperation - namely through reputation and shame. Ralf Sommerfeld, a recent graduate who worked with the Max Planck Institute, presented several of his new game theoretical studies showing that gossip and reputation can lead to increases in overall cooperation [1, 2]. This is the theory that underpinned my presentation proposing that we migrate away from guilt-based efforts in conservation (e.g. eco-labels) and toward shame-based strategies, which we can use to motivate large-scale resource users -- a more effective conservation strategy. To show evidence of this in the real world, John Hocevar, head of oceans campaigns for Greenpeace USA, presented their work on affecting retailer reputation (e.g. the campaign) to encourage greater cooperation. In particular, he focused on the seafood scorecard, which has been released in 15 countries around the world and ranks major supermarkets according to their seafood procurement policies. As a result, many large retailers have stopped selling certain fish, like Orange roughy and sharks, and have engaged with discussions with the 'good cops' of conservation, like WWF.

The AAAS theme of bridging science and society was commendable, but there is still hesitation from scientists who try to avoid being perceived as advocates. For instance, Chris Clark, head of the Bioacoustics lab at Cornell University and an expert on sound in the ocean, showed that the oceans are three times louder than they were in the 1960s - much of it on account of shipping. For acoustic feeders like right whales, this means greater difficulty locating food and each other, as noise disturbance causes "frequent tears in their social fabric". The evening before, Clark mentioned to me that a potential solution was to slow boat speeds, which was also more fuel efficient and cheaper for shipping. A Norwegian firm had, in fact, already committed to slowing their ship speeds. Clark has also made progress in installing smart buoys that alert ship captains to the presence of right whales to help them avoid collisions. The following day, Clark made a very compelling presentation of the problem of acoustic disturbances, but oddly he did not mention any solutions in his presentation.

This is why scientists need to build bridges and they need to make maps. I am not necessarily referring to a literal "map making", which is what a colleague dubbed the spatial planning session at AAAS. I refer to an action map to guide the audience where they might go if they want to know more or do something with the science they just learned.

Since the 1960s, studies have shown that behavior does not change merely as a result of information, even if it is fear inducing. Behavior can change if information is combined with an action plan. In a 1965 study on tetanus inoculation, researchers showed students the somewhat terrifying results of contracting tetanus, which resulted in 3 percent of the students getting a tetanus shot. Other subjects were given the same lecture but were also given a copy of a campus map with the location of the health center circled. They were then asked to make a plan for when they get the shot and look at a map to decide what route they would take to get there. In this case, 28 percent of the students managed to show up and get their tetanus shot. The medical message seemed to influence attitudes but a specific plan influenced action [3].

In bridging science and society, scientists need to consider avenues to give their audience an action map. One obvious solution could be for scientists to incorporate policies and actions that would deal with the issues they study, like Chris Clark's recommendation to slow shipping speeds to reduce ocean noise. In some cases, scientists can take action, as happened in 1974 after two chemists at the University of California Irvine proposed a hypothesis that related CFC use to the depletion of the atmosphere. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina did not stop there but advocated for the ban of CFCs, which occurred regionally just three years later and, globally, with the 1987 Montreal Protocol [4].

However, many scientists feel uncomfortable with action plans or, what many call 'advocacy'. In this case, scientists can team up with people who already have action plans, which is why AAAS supported a panel that included a main player at Greenpeace. It is why coral reef ecologist Terry Hughes, who presented about the fish biomass improvements within no-take zones, presented alongside Jay Nelson from Pew, who is working to establish large marine reserves in an ocean where less than 0.08 percent of the area is no-take. Hughes also nicely exhibits the benefit of having scientists to examine the effects of action plans themselves. Like the scientists who examined the effects of a map on tetanus shots, Hughes has studied the biomass improvements in certain fish, like the coral trout, afforded by society's decision to re-zone and protect a greater area of the Great Barrier Reef [5]. His research was a nice reminder that the bridge between science and society is a two-way street.

1. Sommerfeld, R. H. Krambeck, D. Semmann, and M. Milinski. 2007. Gossip as an alternative for direct observation in games of indirect reciprocity. PNAS 104:17435-17440.
2. Sommerfeld, R. H. Krambeck, and M. Milinski. 2008. Multiple gossip statements and their effect on reputation and trustworthiness. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275(1650): 2529-36.
3. Leventhal, H., R. Singer, R. and S. Jones. 1965. Effects of fear and specificity of recommendation upon attitudes and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 20-29.
4. Haas, P.M. 1990. Obtaining International Environmental Protection through Epistemic Consensus. Millennium - Journal of International Studies 19: 347-364.
6. McCook et al. 2010. Adaptive management of the Great Barrier Reef: A globally signiï¬cant demonstration of the beneï¬ts of networks of marine reserves. PNAS.

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"However, many scientists feel uncomfortable with action plans or, what many call 'advocacy.'"

The presentation of scientific research has two components: presenting evidence and advocating for a specific interpretation of that evidence. Advocacy is an inherent part of scientific research. If you don't believe in your own work enough to advocate for a specific interpretation and meaning of it, why bother doing it?

There's a profound asymmetry here. In the regulatory arena it is not hard for a corporation to find any number of degreed scientists willing to act as paid consultants to present and discuss scientific evidence in the aggressive manner of an advocate. Entire consulting firms exist which employ scientists to provide what can only be called representations of pure advocacy, ie. to advocate for the regulatory outcome the corporate client wishes. By this metric it is abundantly obvious that many many scientists have no problem with entering the arena of advocacy.

But to hire these scientists to advocate on your behalf costs an enormous amount of money. And this amount of money is generally not available to those in the public who are advocating solely on behalf of the commons and its preservation. The commons, by definition, has no specific constituency. Corporations generally wish to extract resources from the commons as quickly and as cheaply as possible to serve short-term profit goals without regard to the long-term, or even short-term, health of the commons.

The original purpose of publicly funded natural resource agencies and universities was to act as stewards for the commons in perpetuity, but many have been saddled with explicit or implicit expectations to act on the short-term behalf of those users which produce jobs and economic activity by exploiting the commons, even if this exploitation will damage or destroy the commons.

One of the conundrums is that in a perfect world, scientific research is supposed to be conducted in a value-neutral context. But this is not possible if the science you are conducting is in a natural resource field which affects a commons. If the commons has economic value which can be exploited, then your scientific work is deeply embedded in a value-laden context and cannot be freed from it. It's part of the job. This is why the Precautionary Principle was developed: to give scientists a value framework which explicitly favors long-term preservation of the commons in the face of short-term scientific uncertainty.

But in the end there needs to be a constant and sober assessment of whether progress is being made toward the goal of protecting and improving the health of the commons. Are things better than they were 10-20-30-50 years ago? Why or why not? What has worked and what hasn't and why?

Science is informed advocacy.

This, is a fascinating exploration. Personally, I am wondering if there is also another way of looking at this consciousness by asking the question(s) "Does society want to bridge science and society?" Or, "Why are there segments of society that resist [or struggle with] the bridging of science and [non-scientific] social conscience/awareness?"

This discussion doorway opened another vein of musing, in wondering if social mores, and how we develop, and or evolve behavior is actually more of a biological science, rather than a loose and often muddy cultural phenomena? Then, if we begin to accept the nature of evolutionary social creative adaptation and mutation of behavior, do we then ultimately perceive how we evolve as something called: Biomorals. Seems to me that in the end, genetics always trumps dogma...

By Chris Martell (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

I could not more completely disagree. You cannot as a scientist go into a study or experiment with a planned outcome in mind. This violates basic scientific method.

You have to stay objective, and you cannot be objective if you go into the lab everyday with the presumption that something is going to be true because its good for the environment.

I can understand why scientists want to preserve their role as providers of information, rather than advocates of solutions. That being said, I don't think it is ethical for them to ignore it when important information is ignored or responded to inappropriately.

This is most true where it comes to climate science, due to how enormously important it is to start mitigating now, if we are to have a decent shot of avoiding catastrophic outcomes.

Scientists do have prescribed social roles, but that doesn't mean they don't have other ethical duties as human beings. Among those are helping people to do a better job of making very important decisions.

lets not forget what happened in recent times when the emails of a couple climate scientists that put a little too much advocacy into their work got released.

You cannot as a scientist go into a study or experiment with a planned outcome in mind. This violates basic scientific method.

Not true. The whole idea of developing a hypothesis is that you think you have a good idea for what will happen when you do a study. Then you do the study and see what happens and adjust your hypothesis in response to the results. This is the essence of good science. Science is advocating for your explanation of some little corner of reality and being able to back it up with studies that were designed to falsify your idea, and failed to do so.


lets not forget what happened in recent times when the emails of a couple climate scientists that put a little too much advocacy into their work got released.

That's bogus. Every single thing those climate scientists have said is fully supported by peer-reviewed research and none of them have backed down an inch from their findings, nor do they have any reason to.


Science is not about presenting "information" -- a thermometer or depth finder can do that. Information is stenography. Science is providing cogent explanations for why the information is what it is. Without the underlying explanation, the information is meaningless.

You cannot be objective if you go into the lab everyday with the presumption that something is going to be true because its good for the environment. -- jim.

Nobody does that because nobody ever frames the question that way, except in some weird conservative hallucination of what actual scientists actually do.

It's not bogus at all. I don't dispute the results of climate science, but I think if you tred the line of science and advocacy you have the very real possibility of all of your valid work being undermined in a political arena. Where does that leave you?

I also don't understand how you interpreted "planned outcome".

I've seen plenty of examples where alpha values suddenly become inflated without any justification in order to reject the null hypothesis because the OUTCOME shows how great some new thing is for the environment. Then other times the null hypothesis is not rejected and then they still go on to discuss and support the hypothesis like it never happened.

Is this good science?

or when completely inappriopriate data is used to show a trend and make far future predictions waaaaay outside the statistical inference of the trend. Then the appropriate data is used and reanalyzed but by that time the media and public has latched onto a single number "2048".

I think this abstract by a researcher at UCSC states my view on this topic much better than I have been able to articulate:

Separating environmental science and environmentalism in the study of marine reserves
Marc Mangel, University of California, Santa Cruz

The issues associated with the study of marine reserves reside along the boundary between environmental science and environmental action, and it is easy to confuse the two because we often feel strongly about the outcome of the work. If we, as a community, do not want to end up with egg on our faces, we must take extreme care when working on this subjectâregardless of our personal opinions. I will illustrate these difficulties using two simple models. The first is a stochastic, single-species model and helps illustrate the questions that can be answered as scientific ones and the questions that are rightfully the domain of social discourse. The second is a deterministic two-species model that illustrates the importance of conceiving of the role of reserves in a wide, ecosystem context. These models help us see how to separate the scientific questions from the activist issues. By blurring the line, we ignore the need for important discussions.

"The medical message seemed to influence attitudes but a specific plan influenced action."

In Thaler's book, "Nudge", he describes that road workers used shorter road stripes between lanes to slow traffic on a dangerous curve(drivers perceive they are going faster) when all manner of warning signs did not work. I am most definitely in the 'no advocacy' camp, but see no conflict in ecologists working with social scientists, et al. to develop strategies such as these.

Also, see the work of Cialdini about using normative messages to change behavior.

Very interesting. This ("So much of what the scientists do is less relevant than it could be.") has been a concern of mind for a really long time -- for my entire scientific career, in fact (about 20 years since my Ph.D in plant molecular biology).

My own experience suggests a more practical cause than has been discussed so far: the rewards structure and culture of universities where most scientists work. Briefly, the traditional rewards structure places great value of publication in traditional scientific journals, and these journals expect a particular, and passive, approach to the science. Meanwhile, it's hard to come up with publishable data, and scientists tend to gravitate toward fields that aren't too crowded. This, combined with the exalted status of "basic science," means publications are almost by definition irrelevant to the real world.

I think the emphasis on neutrality and passivity comes from the notion that science itself is neutral, but applications of science are not. What happened in WWII left science with a bad hangover when it comes to applications. Many scientists -- including Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA -- left physics for biology as a result. Vannevar Bush's "Science: The Endless Frontier" was the founding document for basic science.

In 1997 the Brookings Institute published "Pasteur's Quadrant," an attempt to reorder research and funding priorities. I learned about this book at a AAAS meeting about 10 years ago, from NSF grant program managers who really liked it, but it has apparently failed to get traction in the university world.

I wouldn't be able to do any of the things that I think actually need doing if I were still part of academic culture. Of course financially supporting doing things that need doing is very hard outside of academic culture, but at least the work is permitted. One has only to answer to one's spouse.

By Steve Verhey (not verified) on 25 Mar 2010 #permalink

"In November 2006, academic research scientist Ray Hilborn denounced what he described as a 'faith-based fisheries movement' that produced in 'Science' and 'Nature' magazines 'a long string of papers on the decline and collapse of the fisheries that have attracted considerable public attention, occasionally gaining coverage in the New York Times and Washington Post.'

Hilborn asserted that the peer review process 'has totally failed,' conquered as it were by the anti-fishing imperative that worked backward from conclusions to findings.

To support his argument, the first paper Hilborn cited was Casey and Myers' which had been featured in the Washington Post under the headline 'Barndoor skate near extinction.'

Into the same category, 'agenda-driven' science he also placed another Myers collaboration - this one with Boris Worm - which purported to prove that large pelagic species, the alpha predators, had been fished down to 10 percent of their historic abundance.

'Widely cited in the scientific and popular literature, this paper raised a furor among many scientists specializing in pelagic fisheries who knew the same data, knew it was being misinterpreted and knew there was a large body of other data that contradicted Myers and Worm's results,' Hilborn wrote in the November 2006 Fisheries Magazine.

The decline of the alpha predator report was not easily diminished, and remains a near ubiquitous citation in policy papers by the Environmental Defense Fund and other groups."

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