The Moral Case for Scientists as Advocates for Environmental Policy

Ellen M. Maccarone, University of Florida

Department of Philosophy

330 Griffin-Floyd Hall

PO Box 118545

Gainesville, FL 32611-8545

Ohio University Student Applied Ethics Conference

Athens, OH

April 25-27, 2003

A current issue in the area of environmental ethics concerns the role of scientists as advocates for environmental policy.  This raises two distinct and complex ethical issues.  The first is the effect that scientists and their expertise can have on environmental policy issues.  The second is the evaluation of the scientists themselves.

In this paper I will give some background about the first issue as it relates to conservation biology.  Conservation biology offers a somewhat unique test case of the effects scientists can have on policy issues, since, in its very conception, the field of conservation biology is interested in policy issues as well as scientific research.  Additionally, it is worthwhile to note up front that this first ethical issue is not the main focus of this paper.  While interesting and important, I am here more concerned with the ethical issues that advocacy itself raises for scientists, rather than specific concerns about what effect scientists can have on policy issues.

The second issue, about advocacy itself, is the main focus of this paper.  I will argue that it is morally permissible for scientists to be advocates for environmental policies.  This is for three reasons.  First, since scientists are also citizens, it is improper to deny them the opportunity to advocate for things they think are important.  ”Citizenship” here does not refer to citizenship in any particular country. Since environmental concerns are global concerns, citizenship in the global community is all the citizenship that is required to make this claim.

Second, scientists, who do possess at least some expertise in the area of environmental policy, should be sought out to advocate for these positions precisely because they the ones with the knowledge, understanding and access to objective studies relating to policy issues.  Some scientists will be better equipped for this than others, as some areas of scientific research are more relevant to environmental policy than others.

Third, I will argue that that while objectivity is required for scientific research, advocacy for policy issues does not entail a failure of objectivity.  Further, it seems that to contrast advocacy with objectivity is, in some sense, mistaken.  Those who contrast advocacy with neutrality have, perhaps, located a better contrast, but to suppose that scientists should be neutral about all things is also mistaken. One last point on this issue is important to make now.  Scientists who do not engage in objective research and who try to use that research as support for positions for which they advocate may be successful in the short run, but, as their scientific research is exposed, will ultimately be unable to serve as good and credible advocates for the positions and policies they care about.  This point is related to the first issue as well.  Those scientists who do this are not only poor scientists, but also poor advocates.

The Effect of Scientists on Environmental Policy

Conservation biology is somewhat of a unique discipline to examine in light of policy issues.  It is so, because, as a discipline, it wears its values on its sleeve, so to speak.  As Bryan G. Norton writes in his editorial for the journal Conservation Biology entitled “What is a Conservation Biologist?” “conservation biology is a prescriptive science … [and has] a social obligation to participate in the public debate about the nature of ecosystem health” (Norton 1988:237).  Norton also says “conservation biologists must participate with the public in the debate regarding the very nature of ecological health, even while trying to protect it.  This responsibility must be accepted squarely; [this] fledgling discipline must not hide behind a false façade of value-free science” (Norton 1988:238).  Railing against the view of positivistic science as he does, Norton identifies conservation biology as a scientific discipline with values.  Norton is himself a conservation biologist.  And while scientists are often thought to subscribe to the positivistic view of science, Norton is not alone among his colleagues in conservation biology in renouncing it.

In 1996 the journal Conservation Biology ran a symposium on the role of advocacy in conservation biology.  In its introductory piece Reed F. Noss claims that advocacy in conservation biology is how the field expresses its public responsibility, that “few conservation biologists today claim that science in general or [conservation biology] in particular is value-free” and that “although viewpoints differ, most contributors [to the symposium] believe that the role of values and advocacy in conservation biology is central to [the] field” (Noss 1996:904).  The main piece of the symposium, “A Science for Survival: Values and Conservation Biology” by Dwight Barry and Max Oelschlaeger argues that conservation biology is “inescapably normative,” “ethically overt,” and that “advocacy for the preservation of biodiversity is part of the scientific practice of conservation biology” (Barry and Oelschlaeger 1996:905).

So, what does this mean for the effect scientists can have on environmental policy?  In some sense, only very little.  It does mean that some, perhaps most, conservation biologists see advocacy for at least maintaining biodiversity as one of their responsibilities as conservation biologists.  But as Barry and Oelschlaeger admit, as well as James E. Salzman in “Scientists As Advocates: The Point Reyes Bird Observatory and Gill Netting in Central California” admits, scientists can have either a positive (understood as protecting biodiversity) or negative effect on environmental policy.  What effect scientists have on policy depends on many things such as reliability of scientific research, willingness of policy makers to listen to them and understand scientific data, the gravity of the problem requiring policy intervention, etc.  And while scientific data is often critical to the decision-making process for policy makers, this does not ensure that scientists or scientific data will have a positive effect on policy.  Salzman notes that one thing that led to scientists and scientific data having such a positive effect in the Point Reyes case was that long-term studies done were seen as objective and presented in that light by those who, even though they had a vested interest, were seen as doing objective research (Salzman 1989:173).  Those involved in advocacy for policy in the Point Reyes case were seen as keeping their advocacy role separate from their research and this went along way with the policy makers.

Martin Wachs in his paper “Ethics and Advocacy in Forecasting for Public Policy,” argues that those who produce studies specifically for policy makers are too often at the mercy of those policy makers and frequently provide studies with less than credible results.  Advocating for policies in this situation, Wachs argues, removes researchers from the pure research that they are best suited for(Wachs 1990:143).  Wachs’s paper addresses others than scientists as well, such as traffic planners, for example.  He does highlight one very important thing, although it may not be completely obvious in reading his paper.  His main criticism is of those studies produced specifically for advocacy purposes.  It is less clear how his remarks should be taken when examining research done for research’s sake and only later put to use in advocacy.  Some conservation biologists, such as Tracy and Brussard basically agree with Wachs’s assessment and argue that this is taking the science out of conservation biology to the detriment of the discipline (Tracy and Brussard 1996:918).

Given that it seems intuitively clear that things can have a positive result given advocacy’s effect such as in the Point Reyes case, or negatively as Wachs discusses, we have a more important question to address.  What parameters are required for scientists who wish to engage in advocacy that will help ensure a positive result (as much as that is possible given that there are many other actors involved) and ensure that they also fulfill their responsibilities as scientists?  One interesting point that the Point Reyes case brings to the forefront is that good science makes for good advocacy.  This question will only be partly answered here as I argue that scientists are morally permitted to be advocates for environmental policy.  The way scientists engage in advocacy is limited by what is morally permissible, but this is true for all those who engage in advocacy as well.

The Moral Permissibility[1] of Scientists as Advocates for Environmental Policy

The first argument in favor of the moral permissibility of scientists serving as advocates for environmental policy is really quite a simple and intuitive one.  While environmental policies are usually taken country by country rather than internationally, the environmental crises that policies are intended to address are global ones.  In some sense, as frequent reference to the “butterfly effect” reminds us, there really is only one ecosystem.  Since the environmental issues at hand are global ones, members, citizens[2] if you will, of the global community have a vested interested in resolving those environmental crises in a way that is to the overall, long-term benefit of the members of that community.

Members, or citizens, of the global community, as those with a vested interest in the resolving of environmental crises, should be morally permitted to act in ways that ensure, or help to ensure, that the necessary policy changes to resolve these crises are made.  It seems clear that morality is intended for the benefit of at least the global community here on Earth.  And, as such, supports the advocacy of scientists.[3]

Given that the default position[4] here is to permit members of the global community to act in these ways, or rather, to advocate for policy change, scientists, who clearly are members of the global community, ought to be permitted to advocate as well.  To exclude scientists from those permitted to advocate requires a strong, positive argument.  The burden of proof clearly rests on those who wish to limit what seems otherwise to be a prima facie moral right.  Rather than leaving it like that, let us consider two possibilities for such an argument, and in so doing discuss the two remaining points.

One might think that scientists ought to be excluded from having this right of advocacy because they might hold too much sway in policy debate given their scientific knowledge and expertise.  This kind of argument might be likened to why many jury experts encourage lawyers, when picking juries, to exclude other lawyers.  A lawyer on a jury panel might use his or her knowledge of legal proceedings to sway others on the jury in an illegitimate way when the jury is deliberating.  But it seems that the analogy does not hold with the case of scientists advocating for policy decisions.  Legal knowledge is not required for analyzing the evidence in a trial – the judge instructs the jury as to what they are to consider.  But scientific knowledge is required for making informed environmental policy. A scientist, such as a conservation biologist, is in a better position to analyze, interpret and understand scientific data in support or against some environmental policy.  Perhaps then, his or her view on the matter should be given more weight than someone’s view who is not in such a position.

In the specific case of a discipline like conservation biology that is clear and upfront about its values and goals, we can figure out why a conservation biologist endorses some policy over another.  This helps us determine what weight to give to such an advocate.  If our goals or values do not include biodiversity and ecosystem health, then it seems we should discount a conservation biologist’s advocacy, but if they do include those things, the view of a conservation biologist should be weighted heavily, given his or her expertise. Note that how we weight the data is a matter of what our goals and values are, not whether it is a scientist or a layperson advocating for a position.  So, rather than excluding scientists from the role of advocate, we should encourage them, as it aids, not hinders, informed policy decisions.

It seems clear then, that the expertise of a scientist is not the kind of thing that ought to take him or her out of the running for being an advocate for environmental policy.  To do so, strips a member of the community of a moral right, which is illegitimate without strong justification.  Advanced knowledge does not count as justification for such a position.

Some might think scientists should be excluded from being advocates because becoming an advocate will compromise their abilities as scientists.  This is one of the most frequently given arguments against scientists as advocates, and one sometimes given by scientists themselves.  There really are two different issues that are intertwined in this one.  First is whether the claim is true.  Is it in fact the case that advocacy on the part of scientists entails a lack of objectivity in their scientific research?  The answer to this, I think, is clearly “no.”  The second issue is whether the contrast that is cited between advocacy and objectivity is really proper and what we should be focused on.  I believe that the contrast is a mistaken one and I will address the problems with the contrast with neutrality that has been suggested as a replacement for the contrast with objectivity.

Scientific objectivity is hailed as a cornerstone for scientific research.  Without getting into questions about scientific paradigms and normal science, we can take objectivity in science to mean that science and the research that is a part of it is conducted in ways such that illegitimate bias is excluded from the scientific method and scientific results.[5] One way this point is often expressed is by saying that the scientist does not care how the experiment comes out.  Strictly speaking, this is false.  Researchers do care how experiments come out, whether their hypotheses are confirmed or denied.  The point, rather, is that an objective scientist will not manipulate data from experiments to support some hypothesis over another.  Lynn Maguire, also a conservation biologist, says that she thinks that making values clear in conservation biology will expose some bad science as untrustworthy but also show that much of conservation biology is done in such a way as to “yield results that, viewed in the context of values do provide a trustworthy basis for advocacy” (Maguire 1996:915).

Setting aside the fact that objectivity is itself a value in science, dispelling the myth of a value-free science, the idea that advocacy entails a lack of objectivity falls flat.  If objectivity is something like what I have proposed above, there is nothing in the concept that is necessarily compromised by advocacy on a related issue.  The information is not necessarily compromised because it came from an advocate.

I suppose that some might think there is a problem if one takes the catch-phrase of “not caring how things turn out” to be the definition of “objectivity” and takes advocacy to mean that one cares about some outcome.  But first it is important to note that the catch phrase is strictly speaking, false.  Second, even if it were not, the care that is being expressed in the catch phrase for objectivity and for advocacy is not care about the same thing.  For objectivity, it is about the results of an experiment, and for advocacy it is about some state of the world, expressed through some policy or something like biodiversity, for example.

What this demonstrates is that one way of making the case that objectivity and advocacy are incompatible is really mistaken.  On one reading as I have suggested, it is based on a misunderstanding about the objects involved in each of the concepts, through having a poor analysis of the concept in the first place.  This should serve as a warning about using “catch-phrases” rather than clear definitions or accounts of the concepts involved in an argument.

Given that it seems that advocacy does not entail a lack of objectivity, it seems there is no reason to exclude scientists from being advocates.  It may be true that advocacy and objectivity are linked.  Some advocates may lose their objectivity, but being an advocate does not necessitate this.  Further, being objective in one’s research might encourage advocacy!  If one finds in one’s research something unexpected and disturbing, one might be induced to do something about it.  This very kind of occurrence is what leads many scientists to fields like conservation biology (Barry and Oelschlaeger 1996) and (Lovejoy 1989).  Often such scientists cite the love of nature as the reason they got into science in the first place, and they think it odd that later, as a scientist, they should be required to set aside that love.[6] Further, that love of nature would be ill-served if the research were not objective, as it would prevent them from doing what was best for nature, as is mentioned in Section I.  This is, of course, not to say that some are not misled by that love, rather, that being mislead is not necessary.

The second point is whether it is objectivity that really ought to be contrasted with advocacy in the first place.  And, it seems, not really.  Kristin Shrader-Frechette discusses the idea that objectivity, which is what is wanted in science, is not achieved by neutrality(Shrader-Frechette 1994:181-182).  In some sense then, it is neutrality that ought to be contrasted with advocacy.  Environmental advocacy, she says, is “taking a stand on a specific, practical issue and defending that stance as rational and ethical rather than merely pointing out the assets and liabilities of alternative positions, rather than merely maintaining a stance of informed neutrality” (Shrader-Frechette 1994:179-180).

This suggestion, that it is neutrality and not objectivity that ought to be contrasted with advocacy, is an interesting one.  First, it is interesting since it suggests that the traditional dichotomy has it wrong.  Second, it is interesting because if it is neutrality that is the correct thing to contrast with advocacy, we can show that objectivity is a scientific virtue, while neutrality is not.  So, even with this contrast to advocacy, we can still, and perhaps more clearly, argue for scientists being advocates.

Objectivity requires that, as a scientist, one lets the facts speak for themselves.  It demands that research be conducted without prejudice and reported without bias.  This means that the scientist must, in order to be objective, “represent indefensible positions as indefensible and less defensible positions as less defensible” (Shrader-Frechette 1994:182) just as the scientist must represent defensible positions as such.  Any interpretation of the data that might be done should be done with the values and commitments of the scientific method in mind, and nothing else.  This does not mean that science is subjective in a negative sense, or has abandoned its purposes and goals.  It is clear to most that positivism in science is either inappropriate or false.  The pursuit of scientific knowledge is committed to some values, at least to methodological values, such as objectivity.  This entails that the old idea of science as value-free is simply mistaken.  Looking at how objectivity and neutrality differ will show that this is so.[7]

Neutrality requires that we make no such value commitments, not even methodological ones.  And this flies in the face of good science.  Neutrality, seen under the positivistic view of old, suggests that “all values deserve equal respect” (Shrader-Frechette 1994:182).  But even if it is not ethical values that are at issue, science simply cannot endorse such a view.  We would think it was absurd to give up a commitment of repeatability in science because we were supposed to pay equal respect to non-repeatability. Neutrality, then, is not a scientific virtue, since it would commit scientists to positions that would prevent or severely hinder the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Given that neutrality is not a scientific virtue, while objectivity is, the positivistic view that they are one and the same is shown to be false.  Being left with objectivity and not neutrality, the conclusion to draw is the same as given above – that scientists ought to be allowed to be advocates for environmental policy.  The moral permissibility of this seems clear, although given much confusion in the discipline, confusion among policy makers and governmental agencies, and an old-fashioned view of science, which attempts to hide its value commitments, it has often not been clear at all.

This is not to say that the moral permissibility of scientists as advocates does not come with responsibilities.  Scientists, when acting as advocates, have responsibilities, perhaps greater than the average advocate.  Scientists have responsibilities because whether they like it or not, they are in a position of public trust.  Advocacy under that circumstance becomes much more complex, and while interesting, I do not have time to go into that in depth here.  Scientists who wish to exercise their moral right to advocate must be very careful in their scientific duties as to avoid charges of bias or partiality.  Still, it is possible to do this – there are at least, no conceptual barriers.

To recap, briefly, conservation biology is a good science to look at for this discussion because it is, in a very real sense, a normative science.  Its values are forefront in its scientific pursuits.  Presenting the normative values of a genuine scientific discipline is a first strike at the view that science is value-free, which is often a cornerstone for those arguing that scientists should not be allowed to be advocates.  I then argued that scientists, as citizens of the global community have a moral right to serve as advocates for policy issues. Two reasons some might think they ought to be excluded are (1) scientists might have too much sway in environmental policy decisions and (2) it will compromise scientific research.  These were shown to be illegitimate reasons for preventing scientists from being advocates.  First, scientific knowledge is required for making policy decisions and second, scientific values need not be compromised by advocacy.  To conclude, reasons offered for preventing scientists from exercising this moral right are not persuasive, as they are often grounded in misunderstandings.  Scientists should be morally permitted to be advocates for policy issues they feel strongly about, but also must be careful so as to remain credible scientists.


Barry, Dwight and Max Oelschlaeger. 1996. “A Science for Survival: Values and Conservation Biology.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):905-911.

Lovejoy, Thomas. 1989. “The Obligations of a Biologist.” Conservation Biology 3 (4):329-330.

Maguire, Lynn A. 1996. “Making the Role of Values in Conservation Explicit: Values and Conservation Biology.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):914-916.

McCoy, Earl D. 1995. “The Costs of Ignorance.” Conservation Biology 9 (3):473-474.

McCoy, Earl D. 1996. “Advocacy as Part of Conservation Biology.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):919-920.

Meffe, Gary K. and Stephen Viederman. 1995. “Combining science and policy in conservation biology.” Wildlife Society Bulletin 23 (3):327-332.

Meine, Curt and Gary K. Meffe. 1996. “Conservation Values, Conversation Science: A Healthy Tension.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):916-917.

Norton, Bryan G. 1988. “What is Conservation Biology?” Conservation Biology 2 (3):237-238.

Noss, Reed F. 1996. “Introduction.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):904.

Pielke, Roger A. Jr. 2002. “Policy, politics and perspective.” Nature 416 (2879):367-368.

Salzman, James E. 1989. “Scientists as Advocates: The Point Reyes Bird Observatory and Gill Netting in Central California.”Conservation Biology 3 (2):170-180.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. 1994. “An Apologia for Activism: Global Responsibility, Ethical Advocacy, and Environmental Problems.” In Ethics and Environmental Policy: Theory Meets Practice, edited by Frederick Ferré and Peter Hartel. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. 1996. “Throwing Out the Bathwater of Positivism, Keeping the Baby of Objectivity: Relativism and Advocacy in Conservation Biology.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):912-914.

Tracy, C. Richard and Peter F. Brussard. 1996. “The Importance of Science in Conservation Biology.” Conservation Biology 10 (3):918-919.

Wachs, Martin. 1990. “Ethics and Advocacy in Forecasting for Public Policy.” Business and Professional Ethics Journal 9 (1-2):141-157.

[1] Some, such as Kristin Shrader-Frechette, have argued that there are situations in which scientists are required to be advocates (Shrader-Frechette 1994) and(Shrader-Frechette 1996).  I will not argue for this stronger position here.

[2] Science and citizenship are discussed directly by Meine and Meffe in 1996. “Conservation Values, Conversation Science: A Healthy Tension.”Conservation Biology 10 (3):916-917.

[3] This is the case even if one does not think that the environment or ecosystems has intrinsic moral standing, since a healthy ecosystem is instrumentally valuable to humans.

[4] I suppose that this “default position” is informed by the western liberal tradition, so some may have objections to it on those grounds.  However, it seems unlikely that this would be someone’s main objection.  Even so, it still seems right to me to say that there are some basic moral rights, which include things like speaking out in favor of what one thinks is morally correct.  Presumably, one thinks that policy change in favor of biodiversity and ecosystem health, as in the case of conservation biology, is at some level, a moral position.

[5] I say “illegitimate bias” because some bias present in research is legitimate.  For example, if doing an experiment on frogs, I ignore that I got the frogs for the experiment from a company in Michigan rather than one in Virginia, I have excluded something irrelevant.  This kind of bias is required for objective research.

[6] On a personal note – I have a friend from my time at Colorado State University who joined the Philosophy MA program after leaving the MA program in the Department of Entomology.  He left that department when they changed their name to the Department of Pest Management.  He said that he got into entomology because he loved bugs – not because he wanted to “manage” them.

[7] Shrader-Frechette has offered six reasons to think that objectivity does not equal neutrality.  See (Shrader-Frechette 1994:182-183).

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