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Science And Nature

THE GENERAL PUBLIC Wants Scientists to BECOME MORE Involved with Policy Debates

climate change to gun control, alerting visitors to relevant scientific evidence and, in some instances, endorsing particular policies where their data provide support. One oft-cited example may be the ozone hole, where scientists spoke up to get banning the chemicals which were destroying Earth’s ozone layer. Expert intervention helped to galvanize support for the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, an aggressive phase-out that is a massive success.

The general public actually could be wanting to hear from scientists who advocate policies that fall of their realm of expertise, in accordance with a report published in 2021 by my colleagues and me at ETH Zurich. Led by graduate student (now postdoctoral fellow) Viktoria Cologna, we undertook a survey around 900 people in the U.S. and Germany. We discovered that most respondents in both countries not merely felt that climate scientists ought to be politically engaged but additionally felt that scientists should increase their current degree of engagement. A big majority in both countries70 percent of Germans and 74 percent of Americansalso felt that climate scientists ought to be advocates for specific climate policies. Scientists themselves, on the other hand, were a lot more reticent. We surveyed about 1,100 researchers, and in the U.S., only 59 percent said they ought to advocate for particular courses of action. (The quantity was higher in Germany.)

What members of the general public didn’t endorse, generally, were political protests by climate scientists. Perhaps it is because people create a distinction between scientists as expertswith a capacity to create well-informed recommendationsand scientists taking specific political stands, which can mark them as political, instead of intellectual, actors.

When specific policies are participating, however, things get stickier and also potentially confusing. Although in principle members of the general public approve of scientists endorsing policies, their support for endorsement weakened when people considered a genuine plan. Only 51 percent of Germans and 62 percent of Americans supported scientists advocating for carbon taxes, for example. What folks say about abstract principles and how they respond to a specific example aren’t quite exactly the same.

Where does this leave scientists? Our results clearly show their generic concern with engaging with the general public is unfounded. People desire to hear from scientists about relevant data. However they are less keen about advocacy for particular plans, so concerns that endorsing specific policies can weaken trust might not be entirely wrong.

Ours is needless to say just one single study, and we looked only at the role of individual researchers. The roles of public health agencies may actually generate another group of responses. A 2021 survey by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health insurance and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found there’s broad support for public health agencies and their activities in the U.S. Yet although public health experts say that coping with the medical ramifications of climate change is really a major responsibility of the health agencies, most survey respondents didn’t. Perhaps lots of people don’t understand how seriously climate change threatens health.

Trusting in science isn’t an either-or proposition. This will depend on many variables. Researchers do have to stay of their regions of authority: climate scientists shouldn’t be offering stock tips or medical advice. But our research shows that they can feel safe offering policy advice in fields where they’re acknowledged experts. The ozone story is really a just to illustrate: no-one knew much better than ozone scientists concerning the reason behind the dangerous hole and for that reason what would have to be done to repair it.


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This short article was originally published with the title “Scientists as Public Advocates” in Scientific American 327, 3, 78 (September 2022)

doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican0922-78



    Naomi Oreskes is really a professor of the annals of science at Harvard University. She actually is writer of Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019) and co-author of Discerning Experts (University of Chicago, 2019).

    Credit: Nick Higgins

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