Call to Order

(Illustration: Santiago Uceda)
(Illustration: Santiago Uceda)

Problem solver and data provider. Advocate, explorer and teacher. Scientists play these and other roles in the often contentious environmental policy process, but not everyone agrees on which role is most important or even proper. And many scientists shy away from policy arenas where they can see their efforts to understand complex systems reduced to sound bites or buried when results conflict with politics.

Special interests and the public regard science as a standard of truth and want researchers involved in policy development.

When it comes to those who want scientists to take an active role in policy, members of special-interest groups (timber, mining, ranching, conservation and environmental nonprofits) and the general public stand out in a recent national survey by two OSU researchers. In a project funded by the National Science Foundation, political scientist Brent Steel and sociologist Denise Lach found that special interests and the public — more than scientists and professional natural-resource managers — regard science as a standard of truth and want researchers involved in policy development.

Lach and Steel also found differences within each group. For example, self-identified conservatives tend more than liberals to be skeptical of the objectivity of science and to prefer that scientists not offer policy advice. Younger respondents and women are more supportive than older people and men of scientists’ taking an active role in policy-making.

For their part, natural-resource managers tend to want scientists to provide clear information and analysis without complicating their conclusions with uncertainty. “Managers at all levels don’t like scientific uncertainty,” says Steel. Statements about probability and uncertainty “drive the managers nuts.”

Science has long been considered an essential ingredient in setting policy. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the National Academy of Sciences, whose mission is to “advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters.” Today, reliance on the “best possible science” is a benchmark for decision-making under federal environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act. Nevertheless, this traditional approach calls for scientists to provide information and then to back out of policy development, leaving decisions to others.

In recent years however, attitudes toward both the objectivity of science and its proper role in policy have shifted, Steel and Lach note in their study. So they explored definitions of science and the policy-making preferences that stem from how respondents view the scientific enterprise.

Scientists themselves see their profession as partly subjective. Few researchers today, they write, completely accept the idea that science produces “a logically ordered, objective reality that we can understand once and for all, even with the most powerful resources of contemporary scientific research.”

Nevertheless, scientists such as Jane Lubchenco, OSU professor and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have suggested that researchers should be directly involved in environmental decision-making. Driven by the urgency of achieving ecological, economical and socially equitable policies, they argue for better integration of science in the meetings, hearings and other venues where policies are hammered out.

The survey by Lach and Steel also found support for public and special-interest participation in the process of doing science. “It’s not just top down,” says Steel. “The literature suggests this is the way to go, ground-based, community-based science. And there’s a lot of support for this from a variety of policy actors.”