In discussions about science and policy, it is quite common for people to refer to The Honest Broker, a book by Roger Pielke Jr. I realise that it is now a little old, but I’ve only just had the chance to read it. Despite the possibility of incurring the wrath of Roger, I thought I would comment on it. If you want to read other reviews, there’s one by Eli and one by Sheila Janasoff (H/T Jonathan Gilligan).
I mostly found the book rather simplistic. It describes four ideal roles for scientists (Pure Scientist, Issue Advocate, Science Arbiter, and Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives) which are maybe okay as simple representations of the positions that scientists could hold, but probably don’t really describe the reality of how scientists engage with policy.
However, as Jonathan Gilligan pointed out on Twitter, a simple framework can be a good starting point for a discussion. I agree with this. On the other hand, the book regularly criticises the simple linear model supposedly favoured by scientists. Criticising a simplistic model by presenting a similarly simplistic model seems a little ironic.
I also found the terminology a little unfortunate. The book makes clear that the role a scientist may take depends on the circumstances, but it clearly favours the Honest Broker role. Although it doesn’t explicitly regard the other roles as dishonest, the use of Honest in one of them will clearly be interpreted as implying that the others are less than honest.
However, the biggest issue I had was the discussion about politicising science in Chapter 8. It discusses how scientists responded to a paper by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunus and to Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist. The suggestion is that because the critics referred to the political relevance of these articles, or advocated for specific policies, they were politicising science. There was no real assessment of the merits of the criticism, or the credibility of the various scientific articles.
The book even says
In this instance, evaluating TSE’s presentation of climate science as “junk” or “sound” is irrelevant to understanding the course of action recommended by either side because judgments of the value of costs versus benefits is a highly subjective, value-laden calculation.
Of course, our values do play an important role in policy making, but that doesn’t mean that whether or not some presentation is “junk” or “sound” is irrelevant. The implication seems to be that invoking various political arguments means that there is some kind of equivalence between the different scientific positions; they’re simply arguments used to support people’s policy preferences. Consequently, that they’re being used to support various political positions means that the scientific credibility of the arguments has little relevance.
The problem, though, is that just because scientists are aware of the potential political relevance of their research doesn’t mean that science is being politicised, and discussing this doesn’t somehow diminish the credibility of their scientific position. Additionally, just because the linear model has failed doesn’t mean that science has no relevance for policy, or that being aware of the credibility of some scientific position isn’t potentially important for policy. There might not be a simple path from scientific evidence to policy making, but they’re clearly not completely disconnected.
So, I wasn’t particular taken by the book. Although there clearly are a number of different roles that scientists can play when engaging with policy, I don’t really think that there are a simple set of rules that one can apply. My preference would simply be that scientists should be clear about both about the credibility of the scientific evidence and about the role that they’re playing. There may well be times when they should be playing the role of Honest Broker of policy Alternatives, but they shouldn’t simply provide policy alternatives for the sake of doing so; they should only do so if these alternatives are actually viable policy options.