AAAS Diary: Has scientific objectivity gone too far?

Reporter Graeme Stemp-Morlock blogs from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

Friday morning there was a fascinating talk called “Drawing the Line:  Scientific Objectivity and Sustainability Advocacy.”

The role of scientists is rapidly changing.  The traditional role of a scientist who just did science tucked away in a quiet lab is fading into history.  Even the idea of a scientist who publishes in scientific journals and grants the odd media interview is being replaced.  The new scientist is participatory, reaching out to the public to be part of their research and contributing as an expert to various policy discussions.

And, with scientific problems of immense worldwide concern being debated everyday (think climate change, flu pandemics, biotechnology) by policy makers and the public alike, it’s no wonder scientists are being required to take a more active role.

But, when have scientists gone too far?  When have they lost their objectivity and become advocates for a cause?

Jane Lubchenco has pondered that question for quite some time.  She is the former president of the AAAS and a distinguished marine scientist at Oregon State University.

“I don’t believe that science should dictate any particular outcomes, but it should be at the table, and it should inform the decisions,” said Lubchenco.  Moreover, Lubchenco called for scientists to start offering decision makers “accessible, relevant, and credible scientific information,” something she feels they have not being getting from the scientific establishment.

And just because scientists participate in discussions as objective information resources doesn’t mean they can’t have opinions.  Lubchenco mentioned that in her own life she tries to tell people what hat she is wearing, whether she is a scientist or a citizen.

Science also has an obligation to tell the public what it knows, not just what it doesn’t know because that can lead to interest group criticism that scientists don’t know enough about the issue.  That means more assessment science such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Finally, Lubchenco made an exception to her suggestion that scientists inform the public but not advocate for any position:  “I believe strongly that all scientists should advocate for the use of science in decision making.”  Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?

-Graeme Stemp-Morlock