19 October 2012

Responsible Advocacy by Scientists

The InterAcademy Council, a multi-national association of national science academies incorporated in the Netherlands, released a report this week titled "Responsible Conduct in the Research Enterprise." The report seeks to set forth areas of international consensus on what constitutes responsible research, amid changes to the global research enterprise such as scale, collaborations, an apparent increasing incidence of "irresponsible" research and demands for relevance from the public and politicians.

The report explains of its focus:
This report uses the words science and research very broadly. The guide posits that research encompasses many forms of disciplined human thought, including the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, along with the archives of that knowledge. These forms of knowledge and the methods used to arrive at this knowledge can be very different. Yet all researchers, whether in the sciences or in other forms of scholarship, are expected to adhere to the fundamental values that underlie good research.
The report highlights the importance of trust -- among researchers and between researchers and the public. Trust is secured through respecting seven core values:
Responsible conduct in research is based on many of the same human values that apply in daily life, but these values have specific implications in the context of research. The discussion in this guide draws on seven overlapping fundamental values:

• Honesty
• Fairness
• Objectivity
• Reliability
• Skepticism
• Accountability
• Openness

In research, being honest implies doing research and communicating about research results and their possible applications fully and without deception, whether of others or oneself.

Being fair means treating others with respect and consideration, whether in citing a colleague’s ideas in a paper or mentoring a student in the proper conduct of research. In research—as in life—scientists and scholars should treat others as they hope and expect to be treated in return.

Objectivity implies that researchers try to look beyond their own preconceptions and biases to the empirical evidence that justifies conclusions.Researchers cannot totally eliminate the influence of their own perspectives from their work, but they can strive to be as objective as possible.

Research communities over many years have developed methods to enhance the reliability of the results they obtain, and researchers have an obligation to adhere to these methods or demonstrate that an alternative approach does not reduce the reliability of research results.

An allegiance to empirical evidence requires that researchers maintain a degree of skepticism toward research results and conclusions so that results and explanations are continually reexamined and improved.

Researchers are accountable to other researchers, to the broader society,and to nature. If challenged, they cannot appeal to authority but must demonstrate that their results or statements are reliable.

Finally, researchers need to be open with others for research to progress. All researchers deserve to work independently as they balance the competing considerations of “what if?” and “what if I am wrong?” But they ultimately need to convey to others their conclusions and the evidence and reasoning on which their conclusions are based so that those conclusions can be examined and extended. This requires careful storage of data and making data available to colleagues whenever possible.

The primacy of these seven values explains why trust is a fundamental characteristic of the research enterprise. Researchers expect that their colleagues will act in accord with these values. When a researcher violates one of the values, that person’s trustworthiness is diminished among other researchers. In addition, the public’s trust in research can be damaged, with harmful effects on the entire research community.
The report includes an interesting passage on scientists as advocates:
The public’s trust in research depends on the honesty, openness, and objectivity of researchers in communicating the results of research to those outside the research community. This responsibility can take time away from research, but public communication is essential given the pervasive influence of research on the broader society.
Researchers have the same rights as all other people in expressing their opinions and seeking to influence public policy. But researchers must be especially careful to distinguish their roles as specialists and as advocates.
Researchers who choose to be advocates have a special responsibility to themselves and to the research community to be very open and honest about the support for the statements they make. Researchers should resist speaking or writing with the authority of science or scholarship on complex, unresolved topics outside their areas of expertise. Researchers can risk their credibility by becoming advocates for public policy issues that can be resolved only with inputs from outside the research community. . .

At the same time, all researchers have information of value that they can convey to policy makers and the public, and researchers are particularly well suited to act as honest brokers to untangle basic facts from economic, social, and political considerations.
The report offers two recommendations on science in policy:
  • Researchers need to communicate the policy implications of their results clearly and comprehensively to policy makers and the public—including a clear assessment of the uncertainties associated with their results—while avoiding advocacy based on their authority as researchers.
  • Scientific policy advice to governments, industry, or nongovernmental organizations should undergo peer review and should not be made from an advocacy perspective.
While the sentiment here is undoubtedly correct, an admonition against advocacy offers little practical guidance to the scientist or scientific organization.  The idea that scientists are in a position to "untangle basic facts from economic, social and political considerations" puts scientists in an impossible position, as on most highly politicized issues, appeals to "just the facts" can actually lead to a further politicization of the science.

Instead, scientists need to develop skills in integrating science with economic, social and political considerations, and appreciate that in doing so, they have choices in how to engage policy and politics. The route to responsible research practices in policy relevant science is through enlightened engagement, not artificial distance.