At the De Gemeynt blog Jan Paul van Soest explains some of the complexities in the context of the recent Plant Under Pressure conference in London which concluded with a modest "State of the Planet Declaration" (here in PDF):
If van Soest is correct that most scientists don't understand politics and policy-making processes and exhortations to action routinely backfire, then what is going on when scientists are making demands of the political system?
However understandable, these expressions are unlikely to be effective. The audience may think that the scientist using these terms have a political agenda. This perception undermines the scientific credibility, whether the scientist in question has a political agenda indeed or not. My take is: they don’t; most scientist don’t even really understand the nature of politics and policy-making processes. And to the extend they do, they are doing a lousy job in terms of lobbying and influencing the public and policy debate. Otherwise, more scientists would realise that overstating is not really effective in getting the message across.
The answer is that for many scientists active in political exhortation the key issue is not "policy" in the sense of "what we should do" but rather "authority" as in "who should determine political outcomes." The appeal to the political authority of science is a common one -- Nico Stehr and Hans von Storch wrote about it in Der Spiegel several years ago (and a translation appeared here, see also Brian Wynne here):
Last week in an interview Michael Mann, the Penn State professor of "hockey stick" fame, criticized the Obama Administration on climate cahnge not for the substance of its policies, but rather, for its failure to justify its policies in terms of science. Mann explained:
In Obama’s second State of the Union address, he actually seemed to concede the scientific evidence as a weakness. He argued that we need to pursue a more enlightened energy strategy in spite of the doubts about the science of climate change. … We’ve actually made negative progress from where we were 10 years earlier, when Clinton gave his final State of the Union address. We've gone from the science being the primary reason to move forward to the argument that we should move forward in spite of supposed weaknesses in the science of climate change. So we've retreated to a position of weakness on this issue . . .From Mann's perspective, the substance of the policies of the Obama Administration are apparently secondary to who is held up as the authority in justifying those actions. What matters is thus political authority rather than policy effectiveness.
The dynamics discussed here are of course not limited to environmental issues. Understanding the current tenor of scientists in politics requires understanding that ongoing debates about science and policy making involve considerations of power politics as much as policy preferences. Of course, scientists who seek such authority are perfect allies to campaigners who seek to exploit the authority of science for their own political gain.
Back at the De Gemeynt blog van Soest offers some useful advice in the form of an alternative perspective on the role of science in decision making, one which is consistent with the discussion found in The Honest Broker:
There were some good examples of presenting the science in a more open way, in terms of a variety of options and their consequences, and including the scientific uncertainties. A subsession on fisheries and oceanic ecosystem governance demonstrated that: a science-based mapping of goals, options, timing and uncertainties made clear what the actual choices are, and helps making progress in decision-making, even in a situation where governance is still ruled by the 1609 pamphlet Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) by the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius.Discussing how the scientific community might relate to policymakers is as important (perhaps more so in highly politicized contexts) as discussing what policy makers "should" be doing in response to various policy issues. Those seeking greater political authority for science may actually be contributing to a loss of trust in institutions of science among parts of society. If science is to well serve democratic governance, then the scientific community needs to move beyond exhortation.
The best and most effective ways of communicating science therefore seem to be those that separate knowledge from decision, that provide policy-makers with options instead of imperatives, and with ‘what if’ instead of ‘will happen inevitably’.