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Science and advocacy: Does advocacy hurt scientists credibility?

Scientists are most trusted sources of information for the public on important science and technology issues, including climate change. Yet, scientists are often the least cited sources in mass media coverage of climate change—they rank below other media sources such as government officials and NGOs.  Even scientific publications, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, does not strongly influence media attention to climate change issue (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer,  2013).

One probable reason that scientists do not feature prominently in media coverage of science is perhaps due to the cultural norms among scientists that advocacy and objective science are at opposite ends. In fact, scientists may believe that advocacy is inconsistent with their training as objective scientists.  Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) carefully crafts its scientific reports as ‘policy relevant and not policy perspective.’ Unfortunately, this interpretation and ‘advocacy space’ has been taking up by interest groups, who may not always have evidence-based, scientific backing for policies and positions they advocate.

In a new paper published by John Kotcher and colleagues at Center for Climate Change Communication, Does Engagement in Advocacy Hurt the Credibility of Scientists? Results from a Randomized National Survey Experiment, challenge the assumption that the public may find advocacy by scientists as less credible, serving scientists’ own political and personal interests than serve for greater common good. Americans perceptions of scientists’ credibility, trust in scientific community, and support for funding scientific research were unaffected by scientists increasing advocacy engagement on climate change.  Even though the American public were found to be a bit sceptical about scientists’ advocating for nuclear power, it was at least attributable to the imaginary scientist’s evaluation of scientific evidence rather than scientist’s political motives.  These findings provide perhaps the first-of-its-kind of evidence to ameliorate some of the perceived barriers by scientists for more effective science communication with the public and policy makers.

However, conservatives—who are most likely to dismiss human-induced climate change as real and happening—did respond more negatively to scientists public engagement advocacy statements, indicating that political and cultural worldviews could still be the primary barriers for public understanding and engagement with science. This finding also indicates the importance of the need to find key messengers, opinion leaders, within the different cultural groups that may be more powerful drivers of public attitudes and policy support on climate change.

This means that scientists may not have to speak more often to the public, they may have to engage with other cultural icons in society—such as political and religious leaders—in order to push for a more science-based polices that could heal the planet from many of our current problems.

Although this paper does not address, future research can test if public perceives more personal, direct messages from scientists—as on their Facebook or social media pages—as more honest and credible than news paper citations.  If this is the case, there is a need for more scientists to be speaking from such personal platforms, instead of speaking to the public only through journalists.

While the public is less discriminating about scientists’ advocacy engagement, the tougher battle could be within the scientific community, about its cultural norms of communicating science with the public. Equally important is to build scientists and scientific organizations capacity to communicate with the public  and media.  It took IPCC over 15 years to recognize the importance of communicating with the public and hire a communications and media relations specialist, after lot of bad publicity due to ‘climategate’ scandal.

Equally important could be structural barriers for scientists to speak out against their primary funders, namely government and the private sector. Future research could also explore perceptions about advocacy among scientists, including the barriers and opportunities they perceive to participate more in policy debates about science and technology issues.

Read more:

Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political? Ed Yong, The Atlantic

Public may be more accepting of advocacy by climate scientists than previously thought

The Science of Science Advocacy: Should researchers advocate for the inclusion of science in public policymaking?

Scientists have long been afraid of engaging in ‘advocacy.’ A new study says it may not hurt them

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