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Should scientists be bolder in public?

Is it the role of science to be brave and pick a side, or just to ask the searching questions?

Climate change protestors in St Andrews
Climate change protestors in St Andrews. Photograph: Getty Images

I spoke at the London Climate Forum this weekend. This is a rough sketch of what I said.

Jeremy Grantham is the investor behind the “Grantham Institute” centres for climate change research at Imperial and the LSE. He recently wrote a provocative opinion piece for Nature, arguing:

Overstatement may generally be dangerous in science (it certainly is for careers) but for climate change, uniquely, understatement is even riskier and therefore, arguably, unethical. It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

It’s a bold statement. But possibly not a fair one. As Roger Pielke Jr quipped, “how about you go first?“ More to the point, perhaps, many scientists recoiled from the suggestion, not simply because they lacked the courage or conviction of their work, but because they felt that isn’t a productive way to do science in public. People’s ideas of science vary, but to many it is not about boldly delivering anything, but asking questions.

And yet, perhaps Grantham has a point that climate is different. It’s more urgent, and there are more than enough people external to science ready to pounce and amplify your understatement for you. It’s surrounded by a very different political narrative of certainty and doubt than, for example, BSE. It’d be wrong to build a policy of scientific advice for climate based on models constructed in another crisis. Further, one might argue that climate science as a community is a bit too reticent, a bit too quick to hide (at least compared to other actors in the field), perhaps because the scientists who are currently at the most senior levels came into it before it was such a high profile political issue; they didn’t sign up for this.

In many ways, this isn’t a new dilemma. One might even say it’s the basic paucity of scepticism, the evental emptiness of doubt: At some point, you have to believe in something and act, or you do nothing. That doesn’t mean we have to be stuck though, it’s just a matter of deciding when you do choose to put questions to one side and act.

I don’t think we should be prescriptive about what scientists do here. If some would rather focus on uncertainty, fine, but equally I don’t think we should necessarily admonish those who take their work more boldly to the streets either (for one thing, that plays into stories those working against scientific advice would seek to promote: who are we really serving when we do such scolding?). That’s not to say we can’t critique individual actions we disagree with, but I’d like to think science is big and diverse enough to cover a range of approaches to science in society, and that we should be ok with that. If anything, we should celebrate and foster diversity of political attitude and approach. There’s a lot more to scientists in society than simply those who speak out and those who don’t; there are different ways to speak, a range of frames and a diversity of possible audiences. As Pielke Jr argues in his book The Honest Broker, their are various models for scientific advice one might choose, the important thing is scientists do pick one approach, and do so consciously  thinking about which they apply, when and why.

I’m not sure I agree with Grantham’s focus on senior scientists, although they will have to be more accepting of such an approach if younger, less senior ones are to be involved too. This kind of work doesn’t just have to be done scientists either, but other members of the scientific community: educators, public engagement officers, artists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, press officers, storytellers, filmmakers, all sorts. (Yes, these people are part of the scientific community – broadly defined – and many are very skilled too).

We just don’t see enough of this activity applied to climate science. And so, I’d say if Grantham really wants a stronger public discourse on climate science, he should put his money where his mouth is and fund some. There used to be the Grantham Prize for journalism, the funding for which was recently shifted to training journalists, but journalism is only one part of the sort of work needed here. I would like to see a much larger project of investment in a larger range of climate communications. (I think it should be funded by the government, but that’s another fight). I know way too many science communication people who deliberately frame their ideas to have a biomedical theme so they can apply to Wellcome public engagment grants. If Grantham helped put together a climate version, I’m sure many would shift their energies, and that’d probably be a lot more productive in the long run than front page photos of Brian Hoskins occupying an oil rig.

This post first appeared on Alice Bell's blog here.