Analysis And/Or Advocacy: What Role(s) for Ecologists?

By Frederic H. Wagner

Citation format:
Wagner, Frederick H. 1999. Analysis And/Or Advocacy: What Role(s) for Ecologists?. EcoEssay Series Number 3. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Santa Barbara, CA.

Science meets public affairs.

This paper explores the implications of ecologists both providing scientific evidence on public-policy issues, and advocating value positions on policy options. I write it out of a deep sense of the importance of ecology in public affairs, and a simultaneous concern for the sustainability of that role. This paper has benefitted from comments by, and conversation with, Joan Roughgarden, Thomas Lewinsohn, and Warren Porter.

By way of definition, a policy is a statement or plan of how an organization will operate to achieve some goal. In the case of public resources like the environment, biota, and public lands the relevant policies are public policies which are set to satisify societal values.

As scientists, we all believe that quality science is essential to enlightened and effective public-policy setting, implementation, and analysis. Its role in policy process is (1) to analyze the natural- and social-scientific implications of contemplated policy options, and perhaps to point out non-obvious options; (2) to assist in the design of effective management programs once an option has been decided upon; and (3) to evaluate how effectively policies and their management programs achieve prescribed goals. There are two corollaries to this role: Science is a service to policy process, and does not itself set policy which is a socio-political action. And secondly, it is the people with the scientific training, knowledge, and research experience who can provide the service function effectively. Hence the vital importance of establishing, perpetuating, and gaining recognition of their role in policy process.

In order for the general public to recognize the importance of this service role, and of ecologists in providing this function in environmental and natural-resources issues, ecology and ecologists must have credibility and public trust. And the latter are only earned with a strong measure and image of objectivity.

Ecologists have an image problem.

While we ecologists are convinced of the importance of our role, ecology and ecologists have an image problem among politicians, the general public, other professional disciplines, and the media. Exhibit A is a recent comment by a conservative Congressman on the House Committee on Resources when a Committee staffer suggested that some ecologists be brought in to testify on the ecological implications of proposed legislation. His reply: "Oh those guys are just a bunch of environmentalists."

Exhibit B: When an ESA member member registered at the Marriott Hotel in Baltimore this summer for the Society meetings, the clerk behind the desk looked at his registration form and commented "Oh, you're an ecologist." The member replied "Yes, there will be 2,000 of us at this conference." The clerk's retort in all seriousness: "Will there be any scientists at the meetings"?

Exhibit C: Recent comment by Joan Roughgarden who interacts with economists, and who has a positive and knowledgeable understanding of their views: "The economists look on us ecologists as just another interest group."

Exhibit D: In the early 80s, Utah Governor Matheson commissioned a critique of the Air Force's 11-volume EIS on President Carter's proposed M-X Missile plan, that maze of below-ground ICBM launch sites, staging areas, and connecting road network across most of the Great Basin Desert. I coordinated the effort with the help of 50 faculty members in a dozen professional disciplines from 6 universities. When the review was completed, Bill Moyers staged a 2-hour PBS broadcast from Salt Lake City on the issue. I had worked hard to do an impartial, analytical review, and Moyers had done quite a bit of homework on the entire matter. Yet at one point during the broadcast, he turned to me and said "Professor Wagner, you are an environmentalist. What are the sentiments of your environmental colleagues on President Carter's proposal"?

Exhibit E: Jim Brown comments that when he first started interacting with southern Arizona ranchers, they were suspicious of his motives and didn't understand the role of science. It took a number of discussions to clarify for them and convince them that his sole purpose was to unearth scientific facts, and then to inform them of what he had learned, whether it was something they wanted to hear or not. He had no other agenda.

Exhibit F: All of us in academia are surrounded by idealistic students who want to dedicate their lives to solving environmental problems. They want to learn science because they think it will put them in a stronger position of influence. Again to quote Roughgarden, she has been asked by students "Why should I study science if I can't personally influence the direction of events"? As a common view within the upcoming generation, it could well become tomorrow's prevailing attitude.

I infer that we have all come into this business because of our love of nature, and our fervent desires to save it. And we all want to influence the direction of policy. Probably, in more cases than not, we would like to have the power to set policy. And we tend to rationalize these feelings on the grounds that we have more in-depth understanding of environmental matters than anyone else; but we then often follow with the non sequitur, therefore our values should prevail.

So we begin with less than full objectivity. I don't say this in any ne gative sense. We all have personal values – we wouldn't be human if we didn't. We all know there is no such thing as perfect objectivity, or again we wouldn't be human. And someone has to have the personal motivation to tackle the environmental problems, or they wouldn't get addressed. But the contending parties in environmental deliberation recognize where we are coming from, and not infrequently discount our scientific message. Witness Exhibits A-F. And painful to say, we all know of cases where scientific inference has been colored by personal bias.

All of this boils down to the question of whether ecologists can both do research that is accorded the value by contending sides in policy process that my article of faith accords it, and at the same time publicly advocate policy options. In short, can ecologists be both analysts and advocates without damaging the image, if not the essence, of objectivity? My own view is that we cannot. And I think the fact that we have tried to wear both hats is part of the cause of our image problem.

So what should we do? I think there are only about two alternatives. One is to continue on our present path, accept the suspicion if not the recognition that our scientific analyses may be biased by our personal values, and hope we can get close to influential people in power positions who will listen to us. We all have colleagues in our professional community who are very effective in getting out the message and working with people at high levels. So this alternative can work.

But it can work because there are people at high levels who share our values and lend sympathetic ears. What if this changed? It took a long step in the other direction with the 1994 elections. We almost had an anti-environmental Contract with America. In 1995 all biological research in the Department of Interior came perilously close to being abolished entirely during the hassle over the National Biological Survey. The forces are still out there. If the country were to fall on hard economic times, things could get out of hand. We could find ourselves out of the loop, and our science held in disrepute. Alternative 1 could win some battles today but lose the war tomorrow.

Ecologists should impartially communicate scientific evidence.

The second alternative, and the one I favor, is to provide the irreplaceable scientific service by disciplining our personal values, striving for as much objectivity as we can, and avoiding public advocacy of policy options. In no way am I suggesting that there shouldn't be advocacy. We have to have it in a democracy. But there are lots of advocacy groups out there. Let them carry the banners, and let's us do what only we can contribute well to public process.

And I don't in any way suggest that we should simply retire to our laboratories and closet ourselves to grind out data and arcane papers. I do think we should, in fact have a moral obligation, to be involved in public process by actively seeing to it that our scientific evidence is known to all contending parties, and to the public at large via the media. I think we can safely point out the value implications of our results, and point out alternative, potential courses of action. But these should be given impartially to all sides on an issue, and we should stop short of advocating any one course.

I know all this is easier said than done. We are frequently asked by the media what we think should be done. Somehow we need to finesse that to whatever is in the best interest of the public at large, both today and in the future. If we began doing that more routinely, I think it would start to get across the general understanding of what the proper role of science is.

What about professional societies? My reply is to ask whether there should be a separation of function between the professional scientific societies and the environmental advocacy groups. I don't ask this in any way to denigrate the value of the latter. It is their crucial role to provide the advocacy we all believe we need to get balanced consideration of solutions to environmental problems. But if the scientific societies advocate, is there any distinction? The environmental groups hire ecologists and support research. If the scientific societies advocate, will their science be viewed by all sides as being any more credible on contentious problems than the anti-environmental factions now trust the statements of the environmental groups, whatever the true objectivity of their research?

Some of my colleagues do not agree with these views, and there are certainly cogent points to be made on the other side of the debate. But I argue them from my article of faith in the indispensible role of science in rational, policy process; and out of my desire for our science to achieve general recognition as the only reliable source of illumination into a process that otherwise becomes merely a shadowy game of power politics.

Fred Wagner was formerly Director of the Utah State University Ecology Center, and served as Associate Dean of the the USU College of Natural Resources. He currently is Emeritus Professor of Fisheries and Wildlife, and is finishing a book on the influences of elk on the northern Yellowstone ecosystem, and the role of research in national park policy setting. Fred was a sabbatical fellow at NCEAS during the past year.

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Ecologists, Advocacy and Public Policy
by Harold Mooney and Paul Ehrlich
Hal Mooney and Paul Ehrlich, two eminent ecologists who have been actively involved in the interface between science and policy, respond: (continues...)

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