To the surprise of few, I suspect, it appears that scientists can advocate without damaging their, or the scientific community’s, credibility. It’s reported in this paper, [d]oes Engagement in Advocacy Hurt the Credibility of Scientists? and is discussed in this article.
The bottom line appears to be that there are forms of advocacy that do not negatively impact credibility, but that advocacting for something specific may do so:
Our results suggest that scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy may be able to do so without directly harming their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community. …..Therefore, at a minimum, it is a mistake to assume that all normative statements made by scientists are detrimental to their credibility.
That said, negative effects may occur, depending on the specific policy endorsed.
I think this is somewhat similar to what I’ve always thought; how a scientist’s advocacy is received depends on whether it is something strongly supported by the scientific evidence, or something that is clearly strongly influenced by their own views/opinions. Pointing out that addressing climate change will require reducing emissions, might be a form of advocacy but it is strongly supported by the evidence and isn’t very specific (it doesn’t say how to do so, and doesn’t even rule out continuing to use fossil fuels). Advocating for something very specific, however, could influence a scientist’s credibility.
Maybe the most insightful comment was from Simon Donner (H/T Doug McNeall), quoted in this article
“public audiences are arguably more comfortable with advocacy by scientists than scientists are with advocacy by scientists,”
Yup, certainly my impression, although I would add that another group who are uncomfortable are those who don’t like the implications of what the evidence suggests.
Anyway, I think this all seems reasonably obvious to me (okay, that doesn’t mean that it’s right); I think most people would expect scientists/researchers to speak out if their research indicates that there are risks associated with various activities. The researchers just have to be a little careful about how they do so – it’s better to present information that is strongly supported by the evidence, rather than advocating for specifics that might depend on personal opinions more than on the actual evidence. Having said that, I don’t think scientists/researchers should not do the latter, they should simply be very clear that they are expressing their personal opinion, rather than expressing a view that is strongly supported by the scientific evidence.