Harold Mooney and Paul Ehrlich
Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 94305
For many working scientists, ecologists included, being an advocate or being involved in direct policy making are anathema. The standard operational model is that we do science, advocacy groups translate the science to meet their own particular goals, and policy makers sift the information received and balance it with general societal issues and constraints, and then make policy. However, the way the system actually works does not generally fit into this neat linear flow and furthermore the way science operates is changing. The involvement of scientists in this continuum, of getting new information, translating it, and making policy, is being stretched.
First, scientists have always been advocates for certain positions or approaches, at least on how science operates and how it is utilized. Virtually all scientists are advocates of the peer review system, the scientific method, the teaching of evolution and so forth. We are advocates of scientific literacy for all of our students and for the public at large. We are convinced of the central importance of scientific understanding to the general welfare of society. We therefore want to make sure that the best of science is considered in educational programs for our students and for the general public and when policy is made.
What has changed in recent times is that in order to accomplish these goals we are working harder to translate our scientific results so that they can be fully understood by the public and policy makers. We are beginning to see this as an important objective in itself. Although the main aim of many of us still remains to do a good piece of research, have it accepted in a leading scientific journal and hope that our peers will see and use it and that deans and promotion committees will take notice. However a lot of us are now concerned that the results of our hard work and very specialized knowledge gets utilized by other segments of society, particularly in education, at all levels, and in policy making. After all, this is the real payback for the investment made by society in the institutions and programs that support our research. In order to accomplish these latter goals we need to speak other than in "journal talk". The Ecological Society of America, in recognizing this need has launched a new fellowship program (Aldo Leopold Leadership Program) to train our leading young scientists in communication skills. Essentially this is a translation program---teaching to speak in terms that other segments of society can understand. What better way to make sure that our message is not lost in translation than by having those actually doing the work giving a clear message on what the story means and its relevance to our state of knowledge and to the affairs of society. This is but one example of a stronger effort on the part of scientists to make sure the best of science gets put on the table when decisions are made that affect all of us. The general public holds scientists in high regard. They expect scientists to provide clear and unbiased answers on problems of general societal concern as well as being at the forefront of the discovery of new knowledge that may in time be of general benefit.
We are also seeing a change in the way we as ecologists are beginning to interact with the policy-making community on issues of direct importance to the conventions on climate and biological diversity. We are beginning to see science and policy working together in real time in certain areas. At the international level we see a new model developing that calls for scientists to come together to give their consensus, with probabilities on our state of knowledge, in certain areas such as climate change. This information is of importance in complex policy making that involves issues other than science. The strength of these assessments (the IPCC model) is that a large number of scientists are involved, the process is transparent and thoroughly reviewed and the information is presented as degrees of certainty. Thus this information is in the best possible format for informed decision making at the international level. The scientists involved utilized the peer review system to provide a clear statement on what is the most solid evidence in the climate change arena and the diplomats are using this information in a serious way even though there are many non-scientific issues that have to also be considered. This is a radical departure from past decision making and no doubt will be emulated in other fields related to the environment in the future.
Finally, we would assert that it is a responsibility of scientists to give their knowledge on relevant issues related to public welfare. No biomedical scientist should hesitate to point out social, economic, or political trends that he/she believes are inimical to public health, and to recommend remedial measures based on the best evidence available. Equally, no ecologist should hesitate to call attention to trends inimical to ecosystem health, and to suggest beneficial alterations. It would be irresponsible not to share views based on deep experience with the public and decision makers. But it is very important that in presenting positions, scientists make clear when they are reflecting what they believe to be a scientific consensus, and when they are giving an informed personal opinion. There is a scientific consensus, based (among other things) on the World Scientists Warning to Humanity, the Statement on Population from the Population Summit of 58 Academies of Science and The Global Biodiversity Assessment, that the population-environment situation is critical. If ecologists are not going to advocate steps to ameliorate it, who should?