Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

NPS workshop

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.

10 thoughts on “Should biodiversity scientists be campaigners and polemicists?

  1. gilsenan

    From the perspective of those outside the field of expertise, I think polemicists do present a conundrum. On the one hand, they raise awareness, get into the mainstream media and sell books. Fine, if it’s based on sound science, as you say. But what happens when the science is unclear (as it often is) and the consensus view is fluctuating? Then the polemicist can be embraced by those with agendas, quacks even, and lose credibility at the conference bar stools. All this is compounded by the fact that a polemic is more easily turned into a sound bite than the usual conclusion in a scientific paper. I think it’s also pretty hard for a scientist to control the ‘spin’ once he/she has become identified in the media with a particular issue. The concerned public want to hear “If we ban this chemical/stop that development/save that animal, then things will be better.” Then they can move on to the next thing feeling satisfied that something has been done. At the end of the day, does this advance sound policy?

  2. jeffollerton Post author

    All very good points, thank you! Just been talking about this with another scientist on Facebook and I commented that there is an interesting contrast with medical scientists who often, it seems, campaign about “their” particular disease/condition, even if, as you say, the science is not as clear cut as we would like it to be.

  3. Clem

    Just left a comment at Joern’s blog and saw your ping back. I especially like your idea that communicating your positions is appropriate to a blog. And you do a fine job here. I will also second your notion that there is a fine line to be walked as scientist and as campaigner. There seem to me potential role conflicts between the two… and I’m not suggesting this is a deal breaker. I’m more concerned the potential role conflicts be acknowledged and appreciated.

    You brought up a fine point in your comment at Joern’s blog – about teaching as another venue for sharing polemic ideas. For me at least the classroom is about as wonderful a site for polemic as a bar room stool. Engaging students to think critically about data is, well… critical. My only reservation for the classroom polemic is if an instructor grades on an opinion position. This latter transgression seems very inappropriate.

    The role of scientist’s evaluations (grant winning, publications, and so forth) are discussed as possible roadblocks to polemic (at Joern’s blog). This concerns me a little less than I think it concerns some others. If a young scientist has great data and an excellent ability to communicate the same then (s)he will build a reputation. Being polemic about an issue necessarily trades on one’s reputational capital. In the marketplace of ideas I’m not sure there is a credit market. You shouldn’t be borrowing on a future reputation to make your opinions seem more significant than they are on their face. For that matter I sometimes see more senior scientists ‘argue from authority’ – actually attempting to bolster an argument by asserting its significance based on their credentials. Not good.

    So I agree that scientists have every right to be passionate. And we should take advantage of opportunities to share our passions with the wider world. But care is called for when mixing roles.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Clem, you make some great points and there’s nothing I’d disagree with, especially about our responsibility as teachers. Though there are those who would see the teaching of evolution as a polemic position….. 🙂

  4. Steve Hawkins

    This isn’t Startreck. Scientists are not inscrutable aliens observing Earth and Earthlings for better or worse and forbidden to help.

    In earlier times there were disinterested scientists, who sat back and recorded the last thylacine, and even collectors, taking the last butterfly in able to have better collections than the competition.

    Let’s hope the unconcerned scientist is now just for the history books! I think that the conservation groups got rather like that too. I had many a frustrating time trying to get support from some of the big ‘nature’ organisations against damaging development proposals. They thought they were safe behind their networks of SSSIs, and wouldn’t bother with the ‘small fry’ local gems of ordinary folk. Well now, most of the little gems have gone, and the SSSIs turn out not to be very safe after all, so some of the recorders and observers have finally started to be activists too. It’s been a long time coming: let’s hope it’s not too late.

    Mind you, as Jonathan Porritt, pointed out in a Guardian piece a year or two ago: the main conservation organisations are still mostly dead against recognising the root problem of most environmental damage and habitat and species loss: overpopulation. Until they get their heads out of the sand, they might as well pack up and go home for all the point their activities have.

  5. Pingback: Recommended reads #54 | Small Pond Science

  6. Pingback: Protecting an ecosystem service: approaches to understanding and mitigating threats to wild insect pollinators | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

Leave a Reply to jeffollerton Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s