Earlier this week I attended a two day research funding workshop intended to develop initial project ideas to address evidence gaps in the recent National Pollinator Strategy. It was a productive meeting from which will hopefully emerge some important, focused science. As is so often the case at scientific meetings, many of the most interesting conversations occurred after the end of the day’s formal work, in the pub. There was a little bar stool criticism of some of the recent published work on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on pollinator health, and specifically whether or not researchers engaged in this kind of controversial science should be polemicists, stirring up controversy, or even activists with particular agendas that they wish to promote.
Whilst I agree that there is a difficult line to walk between scientist as campaigner and scientist as neutral presenter of facts, I also think that polemicist/activist is quite an admirable position for a scientist to take in many ways, as long as the rhetoric is backed up by sound science. It’s also brave given that perceptions of scientists can change the likelihood of their research being funded or even published – reviews and reviewers are rarely as objective as we would like to believe.
So should scientists, and specifically those, like myself, who are engaged with biodiversity science in all its myriad forms, be also engaged in campaigns and polemics? Is this what wider society wants from its scientists? How do other scientists feel about this? I’d really be interested in your views.
In this blog I’ve made no secret of the fact that I take certain positions on subjects such as the impact of poorly conceived development on nature reserves, the fallacies of political spin, and future developments in UK nature conservation. Those are positions that are predicated as much by my personal motivations as an “environmentalist” (a term I don’t like but which is widely understood and will do for now) as they are by my professional role as a university scientist who does research and teaches. I am not a neutral observer, though I hope that I’m an objective one.
There’s a lot of questions that can spin off from reflecting on the role of biodiversity science and scientists in the modern age, which I don’t have time to properly explore but which I hope will emerge in the comments. I was prompted to write this by a really interesting post by Joern Fischer over at the Ideas for Sustainability blog entitled “Losing humanity and other questions science doesn’t ask“. In it Joern develops some ideas about the kind of science that we should be doing “for it to be of use in the sense of creating a better, more sustainable world”. I’d add that what is important is not just the science that we do, it’s how we present that science (the passion and the story telling) to a range of audiences, and also the personal positions we take on the issues that the science illuminates.