Barriers and Incentives to Engagement in Public Policy and Science-based Advocacy


The authors are involved in an interdisciplinary research initiative addressing the factors influencing scientists' level of engagement in public policy and science-based advocacy. They invite all attendees of the ESA Annual Meeting, 7–12 August in Austin, Texas, to contribute to this effort by taking a short survey that will be distributed during poster sessions and breaks in the scheduled program.

Most ecologists are bombarded daily with news and questions regarding the implication of their work beyond the academy. The fact that knowledge is growing rapidly at a time when environmental limits are becoming more evident and impacts are proliferating means that our field is relevant to public policy and often controversial. In the published literature, as well as in the popular media and halls of government, ecological science is referenced, debated, and scrutinized. Many people, both outside and within our discipline, have called for more ecological expertise in policy development and greater engagement of the scientific community. Yet the decision to engage or refrain from participation in public policy development is a personal one that each scientist makes independently, within the context of social and professional norms. We know relatively little about how, when, and to what degree scientists choose to participate in policy and advocacy, and what motivates or discourages their engagement. Deeper understanding of how environmental professionals view policy challenges, their own expertise, and the expectations and normative nature of their professional culture is needed to guide our efforts to foster effective engagement at multiple levels, across a wide range of subdisciplines. Such guidance will require a deeper understanding, not only of what is needed from an information standpoint, but also what is needed to train, encourage, and support ecologists' efforts—individually and as a professional society—so that the community of ecologists is able to step forward and meet emerging needs of society, beyond the ivory tower. Several research efforts are underway, including one that we will be pursuing at the 2011 ESA Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. We invite your participation then, and offer this short background to provide a context for our work and that of others interested in addressing the challenges of individuals working at the interface of science and policy.

Science, advocacy, and policy engagement: a short review

Many ecologists balance, on a daily basis, the need to protect the integrity of their science from a host of possible biases, and the desire to contribute scientific understanding to efforts addressing environmental policy, conservation, and management. A large literature addresses the tension created by adherence to the scientific method and the need to engage effectively with the broader society, a tension that Schneider (1990) famously described, in the context of climate change, as the “double ethical bind.” Scientists must find an appropriate balance between the representation of scientific understanding, including its inherent uncertainty, and the need to communicate the implications of that understanding and engage in a manner that informs policy and social change. Within the refereed literature, this tension has been addressed in many forms, with advice and admonitions directed at the scientific community with respect to different forms of engagement.

The role of scientists in advocacy, in particular, is fraught with complexity. For example, with respect to efforts to conserve biodiversity, Barry and Oelschlaeger (1996) argue that advocacy is “part of the practice,” and that the acquisition of greater knowledge is not an adequate response to the current extinction crisis. Meyer et al. (2010) call for broad engagement in science-based advocacy and outline an explicit approach for retaining objectivity while serving in effective collaborations with advocacy organizations. However, many authors draw a sharp line between science and advocacy. Some of these arguments are based in normative views about scientific independence and objectivity (e.g., Lackey 2007), while others are more pragmatic in tone, warning that scientists who stray into advocacy risk squandering the credibility of science and thus its value in critically important policy debates (e.g., Scott et al. 2007). Some authors call for scientists to be explicit about the “hats” they wear at different times—a scientist hat when representing scientific knowledge or understanding, and an advocate hat when advocating for a particular position or outcome (Kaiser 2000). Others call for a more nuanced role, based on deeper, longer-term engagement in policy debates. Much attention is currently focused on how scientists might serve as “honest brokers” on contested social issues that hinge on scientific themes, actively engaging in policy while retaining a role that is largely informational and engages all participants (e.g., Pielke 2007).

Convincing arguments and personal experience lead us to conclude that active participation in ecological research and scholarship make policy engagement and some forms of advocacy almost unavoidable. Nelson and Vucetich (2009) view this as a logical consequence of normative beliefs within the discipline, and they suggest that scientists would do well to invest their time in understanding what constitutes appropriate advocacy, rather than debating whether it is a legitimate activity. Indeed, even determining what constitutes advocacy is not a simple task, as different people define the practice differently (Scott et al. 2011). If we accept that policy engagement is, to some degree, unavoidable, and that advocacy itself does not have clearly defined boundaries, scientists are likely to find their expertise in demand, but the means of sharing it obscured, unfamiliar, and risky.

Better appreciation of the challenges faced by individuals navigating these issues can help us move beyond the normative debates about whether and why scientists should or should not engage or advocate, debates that are likely irresolvable if pursued exclusively within our professional community. While these debates are valuable for bringing into discussion the need for engagement, as well as its individual and collective consequences, but they have not led to the clear demarcation of differences between “information” and “values” sought by some. We wonder if one could ever codify appropriate practices for scientists whose work is inextricably woven into the fabric of contested policy debates. Efforts for scientists to remain “value-free” are futile when improved knowledge tends to clarify the nature of a problem, including its causes, and when identifying a problem as well as engaging in these efforts are unavoidably driven by values (Barry and Oelschlaeger 1996, Schrader-Frechette 1996). In such cases, the contribution of science goes beyond information, per se, and includes good judgment that is formed through open, honest exchange and multiple modes of reasoning (Wallington and Moore 2005). In fact, Steel et al. (2004) found that, despite some variability in views, citizens, interest groups, and decision-makers shared a broad desire for scientists to engage in environmental policy development, and considerable interest in having ecologists advocate for science-based positions and participate more directly in decision-making.

Interestingly, those expressing the greatest reluctance were the scientists and managers themselves. Gray and Campbell (2008) found similarly variable perspectives among scientists and managers working on marine protected areas. Most respondents believed in the objectivity of science, but few felt that science was value free. They also differed in the degree to which they felt scientists should advocate for specific policy outcomes, but almost all favored the engagement of scientists in the policy process. These divergent attitudes, uncovered in the few empirical studies published to date, highlight the importance of the nuanced perspectives that govern engagement and advocacy by scientists. More specifically, we and other researchers are working to better understand the complex ways that ecologists perceive their professional responsibilities and allocate their efforts along the continuum from primary research to engagement in policy and the application of science in environmental conservation and management.

Key variables that affect engagement

Several empirical studies have addressed the relationship between science and policy engagement among scientists. From these, several influential factors governing individuals' willingness to engage in policy and advocate for science-based solutions have emerged. These represent a set of hypothesized influences on the degree and nature of engagement, variables that we hope to test and evaluate through a survey to be administered at a series of professional meetings, including ESA's August meeting in Austin. Among these variables are the following:

Career trajectory. Several studies have found that scientists funded by governments and the private sector are more willing to engage and do so more frequently than scientists in academic jobs (Royal Society 2006, Bauer and Jensen 2011).

Time constraints. Some studies indicate that, in general, scientists are reluctant to engage in advocacy because of time demands (real or perceived) from their primary responsibilities including teaching, publishing, and grant writing (Royal Society 2006).

Demographic factors. An influential study by the Royal Society (2006) found that several demographic characteristics of scientists influenced their level of engagement. Jensenn et al. (2008) reported that men were more active in teaching, while women were more adept in popularizing science in France, while Crettaz von Roten (2011) found that men engaged with the public more frequently than women in one Swiss university. Steel et al. (2004), however, found only weak relationships between demographic factors and engagement in a study from the western USA.

Peer attitudes. The perceived attitudes and level of participation of scientific colleagues have been identified as among the most important factors explaining the intent of scientists to engage with the public (Royal Society 2006, Poliakoff and Webb 2007).

Training. The provision of training in policy engagement, or the lack thereof, was a barrier to engagement identified by the Royal Society (2006).

These are only a few of the diverse and likely interacting factors that affect the willingness of scientists and related professionals to engage in policy and science-based activism. The task of identifying additional influences and evaluating their impact on behavior will require empirical studies of the sort that we hope to undertake with the participation of ESA members and participants at other professional meetings over the coming months.

Next steps in understanding engagement and science-based advocacy

Much is expected of environmental scientists in the coming decades. The need for greater engagement by ecologists and related science professionals is widely acknowledged, but so too is the difficulty that many scientists face when navigating the challenges posed by active policy debates, particularly those that are politicized. While numerous attempts have been made to formalize guidelines for engagement, a sole focus on guidelines misses the central point that many factors influence an individual's actions. If we care about what people actually do, or might do, we must pay more attention to multiple factors influencing individual decisions about when and how to engage or advocate. Like scientists in other socially relevant disciplines, ecologists must contend with historic admonitions against taking a position or introducing personal values into the practice or interpretation of science; yet they also must embrace the intersubjective nature of policy debates and society's need for scientists to supply good judgment, as well as sound information. Ecology places great emphasis on information and its interpretation, primarily through the peer review process. We are less explicit about providing good judgment, which is often the product of informed discourse, rather than explicit analysis (Wallington and Moore 2005). Will ecologists elect to participate in that discourse and contribute to reasonable policy decisions? What approaches will encourage appropriate types of engagement, such that public deliberation and policy development are adequately informed by current scientific understanding? We need to better understand the behavior of scientists so that we become increasingly responsible, that is, increasingly able to respond, to the rapidly emerging needs of society during a time of rapid environmental change.