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Scientists must be advocates, says researcher

November 23, 2009

When government ignores scientific evidence, scientists have an obligation to speak up, says a BC HIV/AIDS researcher. Dr. Thomas Kerr, a leading researcher with the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says that scientists must be governed by peer-review, which acts as a quality control mechanism, but when research results have policy implications, researchers have an obligation to make sure that they are not misrepresented.

Dr. Kerr was speaking in relation to policy debates surrounding safe injection sites vs. drug courts as effective means of addressing drug problems. He argues that there is no research to support the use of drug courts, and that their expansion by the federal government is driven by politics rather than research.

Obviously, this is a problem, and too often governments design policy based on politics rather than sound research. There is obviously a place for scientists to participate in this debate, but it’s a dangerous game. Politics and science are governed by different principles – politics is short-term and local whereas science is long-term and global. Scientists are often ill-equipped to battle on specific political issues, since they’re playing by different rules.

Take, for instance, the debate around global climate change. Scientists became huge advocates in the policy arena, and had their cause taken up by numerous leading political figures and groups. The most persuasive element of the scientists’ argument was the unassailable truth of science – ‘we have the data, and this is what will happen’. But, of course, science is a process, and you would be hard-pressed to find climate scientists who would argue that we have it all figured out. Unfortunately, this uncertainty – the central tenet of science itself – can be, and usually is, exploited by political critics. So, to compete politically, the science is sometimes overstated, simplified, and presented as a fait accompli. This is both scientifically wrong and politically dangerous.

Check the political fallout from the release of the University of East Anglia emails last week. Ad hominem attacks on researchers, suggestions of a conspiratorial plot among scientists – these are political tools, not scientific tools. You see the same thing play out in debates about teaching evolution or GMOs.

Science has a major role to play in informing public policy. But scientists must be wary about being dragged into the messy world of politics – science and politics play by different rules, and when they clash, science suffers.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    November 23, 2009 10:54

    While science can suffer in the short-term in a clash with politics (or religion), it usually is the long term winner. But by then the damage has been done. Scientists all too often think that weight of evidence is sufficient to speak for itself. This arrogance/naivete is when political counter attacks have greatest effect. It’s why political attack ads are effective, even though they demean the process of political fairness and civility. People listen to the passion of the argument, especially when it is about something they don’t really understand. Hence the horribly successful delay of anti-smoking legislation by Big Tobacco and the continuing strength of anti-vaccination conspiracists. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph…..” quote from Sir Edmund Burke is as relevant today as when first spoken centuries ago. We have both an obligation and need to defend science but we also have to be cognizant of the fact that scientific credibility must be earned, not assumed.

  2. J G permalink
    April 23, 2010 12:18

    It should be noted that even when they DO speak up, in this country they are ignored. Please see:

    Cancellation of vaccine facility not based on science: experts
    http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/canada/cancellation-of-vaccine-facility-not-based-on-science-experts-90816489.html

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