Many scientists are loath to involve themselves in policy debates for fear of losing credibility. They worry that if they participate in public debate on a contested issue, they will be viewed as biased and discounted as partisan. That perception then will lead to science itself being branded as partisan, further weakening public trust in research.
But lately some commentators and scientific leaders have argued that scientists should overcome this unease and contribute to urgent debates from climate change to gun control, alerting people to relevant scientific evidence and, in some cases, endorsing particular policies where their data provide support. One oft-cited example is the ozone hole, where scientists spoke up in support of banning the chemicals that 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 has been an enormous success.
The public actually may be eager to hear from scientists who advocate policies that fall within their realm of expertise, according to a study published in 2021 by my colleagues and me at ETH Zurich. Led by graduate student (now postdoctoral fellow) Viktoria Cologna, we undertook a survey of about 900 people in the U.S. and Germany. We found that most respondents in both countries not only felt that climate scientists should be politically engaged but also felt that scientists should increase their current level of engagement. A large majority in both countries—70 percent of Germans and 74 percent of Americans—also felt that climate scientists should be advocates for specific climate policies. Scientists themselves, in contrast, were much more reticent. We surveyed about 1,100 researchers, and in the U.S., only 59 percent said they should advocate for particular courses of action. (The number was higher in Germany.)
What members of the public did not endorse, for the most part, were political protests by climate scientists. Perhaps this is because people make a distinction between scientists as experts—with a capacity to make well-informed recommendations—and scientists taking specific political stands, which might mark them as political, rather than intellectual, actors.
When specific policies are involved, however, things get stickier and even potentially confusing. Although in principle members of the public approve of scientists endorsing policies, their support for endorsement weakened when people considered an actual plan. Only 51 percent of Germans and 62 percent of Americans supported scientists advocating for carbon taxes, for instance. What people say about abstract principles and how they react to a particular example are not quite the same.
Where does this leave scientists? Our results clearly show their generic fear of engaging with the public is unfounded. People want to hear from scientists about relevant data. But they are less keen about advocacy for particular plans, so concerns that endorsing specific policies can weaken trust may not be entirely wrong.
Ours is of course just one study, and we looked only at the role of individual researchers. The roles of public health agencies appear to generate a different set of responses. A 2021 survey by researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found there is broad support for public health agencies and their activities in the U.S. Yet although public health experts say that dealing with the medical effects of climate change is a major responsibility of these health agencies, most survey respondents did not. Perhaps many people don't realize how seriously climate change threatens health.
Trusting in science is not an either-or proposition. It depends on many variables. Researchers do need to stay within their areas of authority: climate scientists should not be offering stock tips or medical advice. But our research suggests that they can feel comfortable offering policy advice in fields where they are acknowledged experts. The ozone story is a case in point: no one knew better than ozone scientists about the cause of the dangerous hole and therefore what needed to be done to fix it.
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