Picture: founder of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, Jeremy Grantham, and Royal Society President Paul Nurse encourage scientists who feel strongly on a subject to voice their opinion.
The divide between the public and scientists has always been fraught. Researchers who venture into the public arena risk being seen by their peers as selling-out or breaching their impartiality while, on the other hand, they could find their research misunderstood by the wider audience. But a sea change may be underway as scientists are being called on to stick their head above the parapet, and speak out on the big issues of the day.
One such proponent for scientists going beyond the remit of pure research is Jeremy Grantham, founder of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change. In a letter to the journal Nature in November, he urged scientists to be brave and even “be arrested (if necessary).”
Grantham acknowledged the scientific community’s protectiveness of the “dignity of science,” but felt neutral scientists were in a “painful, one-sided battle,” where opponents (such as climate change deniers) use overstatement in a way in which scientists are not prepared to.
While overstatement of results is considered a cardinal sin and highly unprofessional, Grantham suggested: “understatement is even riskier and therefore … unethical”. He exhorted older, more established scientists to take the career risks that younger scientists, who are seeking tenure, are naturally averse to. A key question he asked was that, with funding cuts and the dwindling availability of research fellowships, are scientists just jumping through hoops to publish rather than seeing the bigger picture?
Further support for activism among scientists comes from Nobel Prize-winning Royal Society President Paul Nurse. Speaking to the New Statesman, Nurse claimed that as all scientists are citizens, they should be involved in politics, and that he would be “happy to see fellows of the Royal Society politically engaged, if that’s what they see as right.”
A potential price
But many are uncomfortable with scientists giving anything other than a strictly conservative interpretation of their results. A good example of the potential costs of bad science communication and oversimplifying public statements is the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 and the subsequent conviction of six Italian scientists for manslaughter.
The case shocked the scientific community. The six scientists had stated there was “no danger” of a large earthquake but at the same time acknowledged there was uncertainty associated with seismology. When the magnitude 6.3 event occurred, they were held accountable for the resulting loss of life. As a precedent this case could be a deterrent to scientists making any kind of assertive public statements.
Leading by example
Erica Thompson, climate scientist at London School of Economics, believes that above all, scientists should be consistent: “Most climate scientists fly around the world on holiday, and therefore have relatively high carbon emissions. It shows that the science research they do does not influence their personal behaviour.”
In leading by example, Thompson feels that scientists have an opportunity to reinforce their message, and that if the public see them act accordingly they are more likely to believe the science.
What about arguments that say there are worthwhile uses of carbon, such as flights to international conferences? “It makes sense sometimes,” she said, “but often I think that’s a bit of a cop-out.” Thompson, of course, doesn’t fly and only attends conferences in the UK and Europe. She makes use of long-distance conferencing technology to collaborate with colleagues further away.
Funding cuts could make it more likely that young scientists who already struggle for permanent positions will shy away from the risks of public engagement, but a shift in the status quo seems to be at hand. Scientists should be encouraged to step forward and offer advice and opinion, as it will boost the perceived value of research to the taxpayer and reinforce public trust in science.