Science and Advocacy

By Gil McRae

We often think of science as consisting solely of objective facts and advocacy as driven by personal values and emotions.  This view puts science and advocacy on opposite ends of a continuum when it comes to forces that influence policy.  The reality is much more complex than this, and navigating the landscape of values, emotions, objective analysis, and policy-making is not always an easy thing to do.

The classic image of the researcher as an isolated individual, free to focus on the specifics of a question without the impact of uncontrolled variables, personal values, and societal pressures is a false premise that is less applicable every day.  The scientist’s “ivory tower” is crowded with many influences that directly or indirectly influence how he or she addresses a problem or question.  Many researchers struggle to maintain their objectivity on contentious or emotionally charged issues and to pretend otherwise would be diminishing the human side of our science.  This is why the very best researchers have a strong record of collaboration with other scientists and the policymakers who depend on their results.  Despite scientist’s best efforts to maintain absolute objectivity, there is no substitute for actively soliciting viewpoints from colleagues who may approach an issue from a slightly different angle.  It is equally important for researchers to maintain a close connection with the policymakers who base decisions on scientific results.  The ultimate policy decision may not have the luxury of following every scientific recommendation to the letter.  Social issues such as the cost of implementation, safety concerns, legal authorities, and many other factors often must be considered along with the science in final decision-making.  The FWC model, where research is independent but integrated with management decision-making, recognizes the importance of objective science but also emphasizes that the ultimate success of our agency depends on a high level of integration between science and policy.

Similarly, the common view of an advocate for an issue or cause is that of a zealot who has pre-determined the good-guys and bad-guys and seeks to steer others to their cause.  This is also an oversimplification.  Many advocacy groups employ their own scientists who work diligently to enhance the body of objective knowledge on issues relevant to their cause.  In general, even the most outspoken advocates for an issue or particular species will consider objective scientific information and modify their views, if appropriate.  However, there is sometimes a lack of trust that prevents the constructive communication of scientific results to advocacy groups or limits scientific collaboration.  Building this trust and paving the way for scientific information to inform the debate on an issue takes time and effort, but it is well worth it.  Active engagement is the key.  Advocates are more likely to accept the outcome of scientific studies if they have been informed of or involved in the planning and design of the work.

So, instead of viewing science and advocacy as two opposite extremes on a continuum, it may be more appropriate to recognize elements of each embedded in the other.  While it is absolutely essential for our science to be objective, we must be aware of personal values and opinions that may cloud that objectivity.  At the same time, the energy and enthusiasm of the advocate can be channeled into a productive collaboration if a high level of trust is in place.  Working the boundaries of these perspectives can be tricky, but it is an underappreciated component of the work with do with FWC and in the long run, effort spent on the “human side” of science often pays the highest dividends.