Clarion call for scientists: ‘Use your voice … or lose it’

By Hannah Hess | 06/22/2017 01:20 PM EDT

It wasn’t long ago that scientists were mum on hot-button issues. No more. “If you’re a climate scientist at this critical time you don’t have Miranda rights,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Benjamin Santer says. “You don’t have the right to remain silent.”

Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who published a paper refuting climate statements made by U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who published a paper refuting climate statements made by U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. LLNL

It wasn’t long ago that scientists were leery of taking stands that might be perceived as political, but times have changed.

There’s a growing chorus of researchers arguing now that they must speak out.

"If you’re a climate scientist at this critical time you don’t have Miranda rights," Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory atmospheric scientist Benjamin Santer told a Capitol Hill audience this week. "You don’t have the right to remain silent."


The word "activist" — for someone who advocates direct action — entered the English language in the political sense around 1915 in reference to a movement in Sweden urging the country to ditch its neutrality and get involved in World War I.

It’s gained linguistic muscle for scientists of late, with activists in lab coats marching in the streets to protest what The New York Times‘ editorial board, and others have dubbed President Trump’s "War on Science."

The debate over scientists’ role in a politically polarized environment goes back decades. In 1933, for example, Albert Einstein rocked the scientific community with a resignation statement to the Prussian Academy of Sciences that condemned the rise of fascism.

Recently, some prominent science groups — the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), American Geophysical Union (AGU) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — have signaled that concerns about activism undermining credibility are outdated.

AAAS, the world’s largest general science organization, and 24 other affiliates supported the April 22 March for Science in Washington.

"We encourage scientists to speak up and communicate both about the meaning and the value of the science that they are working on," AGU Executive Director Christine McEntee said in an interview.

It’s also important, she said, for scientists to share what they know with the public and policymakers "so science can be used as a factor in decision-making."

Because the science march drew its energy from anti-Trump sentiment, some very distinguished scientists characterized it as "politicizing science."

Former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren argued in an op-ed published the day of the Washington march that those critics were off the mark. Holdren, who’s now at Harvard University, believes scientists are better prepared than most to enter debates about the role of government in supporting science and in using science to inform decision-making.

"The Trump Administration’s evident allergy to insights from science — whether economic science, or biomedical science, or energy science, or climate science — is a prescription for disaster, not so much for scientists as for society," Holdren said in an email to E&E News.

Other Obama administration science officials, such as former Department of Energy Office of Science Director Cherry Murray, expressed qualms about using the science march to address cuts or crackdowns on science under Trump. Murray cautioned that the march could turn scientists into "any other special-interest group" (Greenwire, Feb. 1).

Generational shift?

Andrew Rosenberg, director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, encourages scientists to speak out against policies they see as detrimental, expose misinformation and ensure strong scientific integrity at federal agencies. Earlier in his career, Rosenberg was deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"With Trump in power, people want to speak out," Rosenberg said. "The model of wait until you get tenure doesn’t wash anymore."

Over the last 15 years Rosenberg has seen young scientists wanting to get more involved outside the lab or classroom.

"If we’re not active," he said, "not only is the science that we do at risk, but things science tells us are important are also at risk."

Bernard Goldstein, EPA’s assistant administrator for research in the Reagan administration, said the debate has gone on for some time over whether scientists should simply lay out their information and let politicians decide how to use it or advocate for a specific policies.

"I find it very situational," Goldstein said.

Goldstein, now an emeritus professor and emeritus dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said recent political attacks on science and particularly climate science, such as the House-passed "Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act," have made it harder to get young epidemiologists interested in environmental work.

The House bill, H.R. 1430, would permit EPA to pursue new regulations only if they are based on science that is "transparent" and "reproducible," with the underlying research data available on the internet. Critics warn it would hamstring the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment.

"If I took a young person and they published something that would allow them to be wide open to these kind of things that the HONEST Act says it promotes, that would be the end of their career," Goldstein said.

"They would have to keep on defending themselves," he said. "How would they ever get tenure? How would they ever get another grant? … That’s bad."

Goldstein was among three former EPA officials who urged the Trump administration in an essay published yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine to take "to heart" lessons from President Reagan’s initial attempts to weaken the agency’s scientific work (Greenwire, March 2).

‘Use it or lose it’

Researchers have put the question of the firm line between "science" and "policy" under the microscope.

A study published this year in the journal Environmental Communication challenged the notion that scientists damage their reputations by speaking out on public policy. In five of six occasions, the study found, a scientist’s and his colleagues’ credibility was unharmed by statements advocating climate action on Facebook (Greenwire, Feb. 27).

But the study also found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to rate the fictional outspoken scientist as having less credibility.

Goldstein said a scientist heavily involved in work on methane emissions in the Pittsburgh shale region became very much an advocate for specific policy approaches to limiting emissions of the potent greenhouse gas, "and that allowed his very good scientific work to be discounted."

"There was no reason for him to become an advocate," Goldstein said. "There are many superb environmental advocacy groups in the area. Getting that information to those scientific advocacy groups was what he needed to do, and then step back and get his work published."

Lawrence Livermore’s Santer holds the opinion that advocacy is part of the job for scientists.

In a paper published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, Santer and his colleagues fact-checked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s congressional testimony on global warming and concluded that his claims about the climate system were wrong (Greenwire, May 25).

"Now at this time, with folks dismissing scientific evidence and understanding, it’s critically important to use your voice — use it or lose it if you’re a climate scientist," Santer said this week in an interview.

"How sad it would be if you spent your entire career receiving funding to advance understanding, if you’re not prepared to defend that understanding when it comes under unjustified political attack?" Santer said. "Why even bother to do what you do if you’re not prepared to defend that hard-fought understanding?"