19 January 2015

Five Modes of Science Engagement

In my book, The Honest Broker, I describe four modes of engagement by scientists and other experts. They are ideal types and shown in the figure above. The different modes are a function of how we think about democracy and how we think about the proper role of science in society. The book gets into some more detail, of course, on the theoretical background. Here I respond to a few recent requests to provide a high level overview of the different roles, motivated by a workshop I attended last week at the National Academy of Sciences organized by their roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences -- on Twitter #NASinterface. I also list some thoughts based on my experiences engaging experts on these roles over the past several years.

Update: Below is my short talk given at the recent NAS workshop.

The Pure Scientist

This role doesn't really exist in the real world. Well, maybe it does for a brief moment when a beginning graduate student finds someone willing to pay them to do research that s/he is curious about, But in the real world, grant applications and funding comes with expectations of impact and relevance. In any case, if the pure scientist really did exist, the role is defined by a desire not to engage. So for now, let's leave it aside (it'll come back shortly in the context of stealth issue advocacy).

The Science Arbiter

This role supports a decision maker by providing answers to questions that can be addressed empirically, that is to say, using the tools of science.  We are most familiar with science arbiters in the form of expert advisory committees, such as those of the NRC or FDA. Dan Sarewitz and I outlined a formal methodology for thinking about and evaluating this type of role (here in PDF). Science arbitration is common and there are many examples of it being done more or less well, and on issues people care about is never far from political influences.

The Issue Advocate

The defining characteristic of this role is a desire to reduce the scope of available choice, often to a single preferred outcome among many possible outcomes. Issue advocacy is fundamental to a healthy democracy and is a noble calling. Advocacy among scientists is often viewed pejoratively, but I don't think it necessarily has to be. Scientists are citizens and as experts have an important role to play in public debates. Advocating for candidates, policies or even directions of travel is worth doing. I am very precise in my use of this term.

The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives

The defining characteristic of the honest broker is a desire to clarify, or sometimes to expand, the scope of options available for action. I often use the examples of travel websites like Expedia as examples of honest brokers in action. Sometimes people get caught up on the word "honest" here -- what is important is the commitment to clarify the scope of possible action so as to empower the decision maker. Sometimes honest brokers are unnecessary in a political setting, for instance, when advocacy groups collectively cover the scope of available choice. But sometimes policy making would benefit from greater clarity on choice, or even the invention of choices previously unseen.

You may have noticed that the title of this post promised five modes of engagement and I've only described four. There is a fifth, what I call the Stealth Issue Advocate. This role is characterized by the expert who seeks to hide his/her advocacy behind a facade of science, either pure scientist or science arbiter. This role seeks to swim in a sea of politics without getting wet. It is the fastest route to pathologically politicizing science. It is also what gives scientists as advocates a bad name.

Some points about the above based on my experiences engaging on this framework around the world over much of the past decade.
  • In this framework, there are no hidden or alternative roles. This is it. Not long ago a report on science communication used this framework but claimed that I had forgotten a category, that of the "science communicator" who simply wants to elevate the quality of public debate. Nope. There is no such thing. That is a fast track to stealth advocacy.
  • It is really hard, especially in highly political settings, for any one individual to play the role of science arbiter or honest broker. This is due to the fact that there are often many views on what "the science" says (including uncertainties and areas of ignorance) or what the possible scope of action looks like. In addition, each of us has biases and idiosyncrasies which can make it difficult to see an issue from multiple perspectives. Even further, it is a rare policy issue where anyone knows everything of relevance. 
  • Science arbitration and honest brokering of policy alternatives are best done by committee, ideally, by legitimate, authoritative bodies which are well-connected to policy makers.  
  • Where stealth advocacy is concerned, the expert's intent really doesn't matter. I had lunch last week with a couple of members of the National Academy of Sciences who told me that on the issue that they have expertise in, they just want to improve public understanding, and not weigh in on any "side" in the political debate. However, when an issue is already deeply politicized, science is typically already associated with the different "sides." In such a context, any statement by an expert about science absent political context will readily be appropriated in advocacy, regardless of the expert's intention. Stealth advocacy is the result.
  • It is a responsibility of the expert to be informed about engagement before engaging. It does no good to explain how you wish the world worked or how it should work a s an excuse for not understanding real-world political context.
  • A well-functioning system of decision making and expertise will find all four roles well populated. Context of course matters for what roles are more or less important. The proper role of an expert in the face of an approaching tornado will be very different than in the context of setting a national abortion policy.
  • Context will determine the proper roles for any particular expert. Inevitably, most of us will find ourselves in advocacy roles. For instance, I am a strong advocate for certain climate policies (e.g., a carbon tax), but also for FIFA reform and (soon) for abolishing "sex testing" in the Olympic sports. Simultaneously, I have been playing a supporting role on a NRC committee tasked with science arbitration and honest brokering. When I do genealogy research for fun, that might be considered pure science. 
  • Because advocacy is often a default role and it is so seductive, there is a need to support the institutionalization of mechanisms of science arbitration and honest brokering. In most highly political issues, there does not appear to be any shortage of advocates. In fact, at times our most authoritative science advisory bodies are seduced into playing the role of issue advocate, leading to a loss of their legitimacy in public debates.
  • There are strong incentives for science to be politicized but also for politics to become scientized. Science has great standing among the public. This standing can be seductive and work against thinking about proper roles and responsibility.
  • Ultimately, I tell my students that I really don't care what roles they decide to play (although I do recommend against stealth advocacy!) over their careers. What matters is having an open discussion about roles and contexts, and developing a sophisticated understanding of politics. 
  • Ultimately, scientific integrity matters because we need expertise in decision making. But maintaining scientific integrity requires careful attention to roles and responsibilities, and sometimes choosing a path that facilitates decision making rather than trying to determine it.
I am happy to discuss this topic further in the comments or on Twitter. There is obviously a lot more in the book, and in various papers and case studies.