The scientist's role in policy-making, part 459

William "Stoat" Connolley draws our attention to a couple of essays by Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia climate team on the role of climatologists -- and scientists in general -- in the policy-making process. I have to agree with William, it's not exactly clear just what Hulme is getting at. Some excellent points are raised, though, and the essays are worthwhile fodder for thought as the Copenhagen conference begins.

Hulme may be a fine scientist, indeed one of the best, but I have trouble following his line of reasoning on this subject in both the Wall Street Journal and the BBC posts. William identifies a few problems with Hulme's argument, including the notion that "it has become difficult to disentangle political arguments about climate policies from scientific arguments about the evidence for man-made climate change." My main problem with the essays involves an even more fundamental question for scientists. If I follow Hulme correctly, he is arguing for a certain amount of distance between science and politics, for the benefit of both the scientists and the policy-making process. From the WSJ essay:

If we build the foundations of our climate-change policies so confidently and so single-mindedly on scientific claims about what the future holds and what therefore "has to be done," then science will inevitably become the field on which political battles are waged. The mantra becomes: Get the science right, reduce the scientific uncertainties, compel everyone to believe it. . . and we will have won. Not only is this an unrealistic view about how policy gets made, it also places much too great a burden on science, certainly on climate science with all of its struggles with complexity, contingency and uncertainty.


Climate scientists, knowingly or not, become proxies for political battles. The consequence is that science, as a form of open and critical enquiry, deteriorates while the more appropriate forums for ideological battles are ignored.

I recognize that many scientists are uncomfortable when politicians ask them for guidance. Scientific advice is by its nature, riddled with uncertainty and caveats, which aren't a lot of help when deciding to commit a nation's resources to a particular set of actions. On the other hand, any effort to downplay the uncertainty leaves the scientists open to charges of intellectual dishonesty and ideological bias. Poor little scientists. They just can't win. So many refuse to play.

But play they must. The challenge posed by climate change requires scientific advice. Scientists must have the courage to take part in a process that makes them feel uncomfortable, even dirty. Society is asking science to step up to them plate.

Scientists, particularly those who accept public funding and those engaged in research with serious consequences to society, need to accept they will be called on, from time to time, to explain what they've discovered and what should be done to avoid catastrophe. Inevitably, some scientists will feel they are being used inappropriately. Some lab rat will become a political proxy. That's life. Yes, it's a burden, but it's not one scientists should be able to shirk. We all have responsibilities.

I would argue that the recent past is replete with example of the benefits of an intimate role for science in the policy-making process. There's the obvious case of the ozone hole. The Montreal Protocol was determined almost exclusively by science, and it continues to be updated according to our evolving understanding of the chemistry of the stuff we're pouring into the upper atmosphere. There's the equally successful acid rain agreement between the U.S. and Canada, which was also the result of scientists telling politicians what has to be done.

In both cases, in fact, treaties were hammered out over the objections of industry, which argued the technology didn't exist to accommodate the terms the terms of the agreement without causing economic chaos. Industry was wrong in each case. Alternatives to the existing problems were available within months and everybody kept getting rich. Clearly, it's not always, if ever, a bad thing for science to lead the way.

Then there's the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which specifically mandates the federal government follow scientific advice exclusively when determining what ends up the list of endangered species. In Canada, the same can be said of Nova Scotia's version of the ESA, although the federal law, the Species at Risk Act, allows the government to set aside reality in favor of economic and social concerns. And most of the rules and regulations government pharmaceuticals in just about every industrialized nation depend heavily on scientific direction.

If history teaches us anything, it's that the stronger the role of science in the policy-making process, the better the outcome for society. There's nothing naive about recognizing that reality. It's also important for policy-makers not to blindly follow scientists' advice, of course. There are always economic and cultural issues to consider. Few would deny the need to balance conflicting priorities. But that's a straw man. The question is not whether scientists should be involved in politics, but just what the nature of that involvement should be.

I concluded a while back that journalists who are unwilling to call a spade a spade should find a less challenging line of work. Falling back on false equivalency under the guise of "objectivity" is a lazy and intellectually dishonest way to report. I can't think of any accomplished journalists who didn't end up "taking a side" when that side is exposing falsehood and deception. Similarly, if there are some climatologists our there who can't stand the heat, then perhaps they should get out of the kitchen.

(By the way, I don't mean to imply that Hulme is such a researcher. His career has proven otherwise. I'm just taking exception to his efforts as a communicator.)


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