Jack Stilgoe and Roger Pielke Jr have an article in the Guardian called They may not like it, but scientists must work with Donald Trump. My first impression was rather negative, but some on Twitter suggested that it was really just a suggestion that scientists should engage constructively. If so, I agree. However, it applies to all, not just to scientists; it’s not much good one group trying to engage constructively, if others are not doing the same.
However, I’m not really convinced that that was the basic message (or, if it was, it’s rather confused). They present some examples of situations where, presumably, scientists did not engage constructively. One related to supposed attacks on George Bush’s science advisor. However, the article they use as a reference suggests that it’s actually related to
accusations that the Bush administration has systematically distorted scientific fact and stacked technical advisory committees to advance favored policies on the environment, on biomedical research and ….
In fact, many of those quoted seemed quite sympathetic towards the science advisor, although I agree that the use of the term “prostitute” was not particularly constructive.
As far as I’m concerned, scientists/researchers should be speaking out if they think scientific evidence is being distorted to suit policy preferences, even if a couple of social scientists might later write an article suggesting that they shouldn’t have done so. Of course, they should aim to be constructive and should take into account, and be honest about, their position; are they speaking as someone with relevant expertise, are they speaking as a concerned member of the public, or are they speaking as a formal science advisor. What they say, and how they say it, might depend on what role they’re in, but – by and large – we should be encouraging people to speak out, not criticising them for doing so.
However, I think there is a more insidious issue with what is being implied in the article. There are clearly many important issues that will require us to make decisions, and the consequences of these decisions could be quite serious (climate change, how technological advances will influence society,…). The implication, in the article, is that scientists/researchers are in some way responsible for the decisions that are made, even if only indirectly. Well, in my view, they are mostly not.
Their role is to undertake research that helps us to understand whatever it is that is being studied and to communicate their understanding to the public and to policy makers. The mandate for making decisions lies primarily with those we have elected to do so. It is their responsibility to make the decisions and it is their responsibility to ensure that they are as informed as possible when doing so. Of course scientists/researchers should be willing to communicate with those who are likely to be making decisions, but they should not be held responsible for the decisions that are made and are certainly not at fault if the information they provide is ignored, or distorted.
Given that there is a very good chance that we will soon start to realise that we have collectively made some very poor decisions, I actually feel very strongly that we should be avoiding this kind of narrative. It’s quite possible that there will be attempts to find people to blame, and we really should be avoiding providing an opportunity to pass the blame onto those whose role was primarily to provide information, while having no mandate to actually make any decisions. If those who have a mandate to make decisions decide to surround themselves mostly with a group of people who hold contrarian views, then it’s certainly not the fault of those who chose to speak out, even if they didn’t always do so as constructively as was possible.
Maybe I misunderstand the intent of the article, and – if I have – feel free to point it out. I, of course, agree with the basic idea that scientists/researchers should be aiming to help policy makers to be properly informed when making decisions. However, the responsibility ultimately likes with the policy makers (and with us, collectively, for electing them) not with those whose role is mainly to inform.