By Kate Lajtha, Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Science
Those of us who have devoted our scientific careers to the environmental sciences have been watching recent political conversations about environmental protection and scientific funding with mixed emotions, at best. It isn’t just that potential funding sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy or National Aeronautics and Space Administration, might be hard-hit or eliminated completely; it is that much of what we have discovered and what we teach our students is being dismissed by politicians as being untrue.
For example, statements by the director of the EPA about the relationship between rising carbon-dioxide levels and global climate change are at odds with broad scientific consensus expressed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and even his own agency.
Of immediate concern is that environmental science as a discipline is under attack and that results from decades of environmental and climate science research are in danger of being ignored. Progress on environmental protection is being reversed. It is no longer 1970, when the Clean Air Act was passed unanimously by the Senate under a Republican president.
It is also concerning that scientific consensus appears to be dismissed, not just by politicians, but by much of the general public as well. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that slightly less than half of Americans believe that climate is changing and that climate change is mostly due to human activity. That contrasts starkly with the well over 90 percent of Earth system scientists who find the evidence linking human activity and climate change to be overwhelming. Moreover, far fewer Americans in the poll (39 percent) had “a lot” of trust in information from climate scientists. Why is there so little trust in results from the scientific process?
A recent paper in the journal Foreign Affairs (“How America Lost Faith in Expertise” by Tom Nichols) laments that the death of belief in the concept of expertise is widespread in America. In part, this trend is fueled by the ability of everyone to Google and find both credible and highly deceptive information on almost any subject. It can be hard to tell the difference. The line between layman and expert can be blurred through what is otherwise highly beneficial access to information by anyone with an internet connection.
Although it is tempting to blame the discord between scientific consensus and political or public opinion on the internet or on social and cultural dynamics, it is perhaps time for those of us who are scientists, and consider ourselves experts, to shoulder some of the blame and re-examine how we do business. We can look to universities to increase ways in which they engage with the public to help bridge the divide. Oregon State University, as a land grant university, has well-developed Extension programs that translate scientific advances to stakeholders who need results from relevant research.
But we can do better. We must change our approach to and involvement in science education, especially for non-science majors. As educators we must master language that makes sense to non-scientists, and all of us should get better at outreach and science translation to the general public. We need to take a pause from our grant proposals and papers to write op-eds, attend workshops on science communication and seek out invitations to speak to non-peer audiences and governmental representatives.
The days when basic-science researchers only talk among themselves are likely over — and that is a good thing.