Why More Scientists are Speaking Out on Contentious Issues

Traditionally unwilling to be branded as activists, North America's scientists are becoming more vocal about environmental issues such as Canada's oil sands.

For decades Ken Lertzman has studied the ecology of Canada's Great Bear Rainforest. Wedged between British Columbia's Coast Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, this rugged forest is home to thousand-year-old red cedars, salmon runs, millions of migratory birds, and the elusive white spirit bear.

On Wednesday, Lertzman and more than a hundred other North American scientists, including a Nobel laureate, signed a statement calling for a moratorium on development of Alberta's vast oil sands.

Lertzman, a professor at Simon Fraser University, worries that transporting the oil through Great Bear would harm one of the world's last remaining unspoiled temperate rain forests.

The declaration by a diverse group of ecologists, economists, climate researchers, and other academics is the most recent example of a tidal shift at universities across North America.

While their counterparts in Europe have long taken advocacy positions for using  science in setting public policy, academics in the U.S. and Canada traditionally have not. Many scientists, particularly in the United States, worry about being labeled as environmentalists or activists by politicians, business lobbyists, or interest groups and losing their scientific credibility.

But now many North American scientists are increasingly leveraging their knowledge to speak out in environmental debates.

A 2014 Pew survey of more than 3,700 U.S. scientists found that 87 percent agreed that "scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology." Just 13 percent backed the opposite statement: “Scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of public policy debates.”

Lertzman has seen this shift up close over the course of his 35-year career. As a young scientist in the 1980s, he thought the idea of academic scientists engaging in public policy seemed pretty radical, albeit exciting. Now, he says, "the idea of using science to make a difference in the world is becoming pretty pervasive and accepted."

"We are advocating for society to make the best possible decisions based on the best possible knowledge. We shouldn't feel bad about that," Lertzman says.

Scientists Drawn Into Fractious Debates

This outspokenness may be fueled, in part, by the Canada's firing of federal scientists who have talked openly about their findings on some environmental topics.

"There's a sense among scientists that their collective expertise is under attack, and they want to do something about it, but they don't know how," says University of Michigan science historian Joy Rohde.

Over the past few years, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada has laid off some environmental researchers and closed federal environmental science institutes—cuts that some critics suggest were made in part to protect the oil and gas industry.

"Scientific expertise is not valued by the federal government in Canada," says Peter Ross, a marine toxicologist whose federal research program in Canada was cut in 2012. Ross now studies ocean health at the non-profit Vancouver Aquarium. 

In the United States, the political landscape of environmental issues is fractious because of the litigious and adversarial role of industry in many regulatory debates, says Sheila Jasanoff, a science policy and law expert at Harvard University. Scientists are often drawn into public controversies and quarrels over the validity of their research. Science squabbles—for instance, whether or not humans are causing climate change—are far less common in other parts of the world, Jasanoff says.

How to wean the economy off fossil fuels, dispose of nuclear waste, or regulate toxic chemicals—these are complex questions. Decisions about environmental health, such as whether to regulate flame retardants in consumer products, are particularly controversial because there are big financial stakes and the science is often rife with uncertainty about the health risks.

"Science alone will never resolve the values debate on how to manage these situations," says Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University.

Although she worked for government, not academia, the most famous American scientist who crusaded for new environmental policies was biologist Rachel Carson. In her 1962 classic, Silent Spring, Carson warned about the hazards of pesticides. She was personally attacked by the farm and chemical  industries and their supporters as hysterical, unscientific, disloyal, and radical.  But her writings catalyzed the U.S. movement to ban the pesticide DDT and enact many new environmental laws.

Swedish Scientists Lead the Way

The separation between science and politics in the United States dates back to the Civil War—when an Act of Congress and Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences, Rohde says.

But in Sweden, which has led the world in taking action on regulation of chemicals, scientists have a long history of public discourse.

For centuries, professors at Sweden's universities were appointed by the monarchy. "Scientists were free to criticize the king [without retribution] in order to improve the society," says Åke Bergman, an environmental chemist at Stockholm University and executive director of the Swedish academic research center Swetox.

That historic mission to be independent and outspoken continues in Sweden. Bergman has been forthright since the 1970s about the risks of many chemicals, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), industrial compounds that were banned after scientists discovered they were building up in animals, people, and the environment. Bergman more recently supported restrictions on flame retardants after his research showed they were contaminating Swedish women's breast milk and caused neurological effects in lab animals. He also works with major companies, including the furniture manufacturer Ikea, to replace toxic chemicals in consumer products.

"To me, it is obvious that scientists have a responsibility to society to offer an interpretation of the right path based on research and scientific data. To not do so is wrong," Bergman says.

Philippe Grandjean, an epidemiologist and professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, says the university expects scientists to engage in public research. At the Harvard School of Public Health, where Grandjean is an adjunct professor, the administration also supports public engagement by scientists, though it warns against advocating for particular policy solutions, he says. From his experience, the two universities have similar approaches.

Grandjean's decades-long research on children's health and mercury has prompted government guidelines on seafood consumption by pregnant women.

"If academics hide in ivory towers, society doesn't benefit from public investment in research institutions," he says.

Stopping Short of Advocacy

Duke University chemist Heather Stapleton stresses the need for reform of U.S. policy when lawmakers, the media, or members of the public seek her advice about toxic chemicals in consumer products. But she stops short of recommending particular strategies.

"As scientists, I do think it's our role to make sure the data we produce is communicated accurately and objectively at a level that policymakers and the public can understand," she says.

In 2012, Stapleton testified at a U.S. Senate committee hearing where she distilled the findings of more than 40 studies on flame retardants to illustrate why the nation's chemicals law is outdated. "When one chemical is phased out, another similar chemical is often used as a replacement, and we know less about its potential health effects and exposure than the chemical it replaced. History has shown that it often takes millions of taxpayer dollars and several decades of research on these new chemicals before we realize there is a health hazard," she testified.

In the United States and Canada, institutional support for academic scientists to engage the public remains "patchy," says Nancy Baron, author of the book Escape From the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter. The tenure system doesn't reward young scientists for it, although attitudes are shifting, she says.

A big part of bringing science into the public consciousness is to make it relevant on a human level by "helping scientists tell their own stories about why their work matters and why they do it," says Baron, who trains environmental scientists to communicate with the public as part of a program called COMPASS.

Lertzman acknowledges that he and the other scientists who signed the oil sands statement don't have all the answers. But he feels strongly that he and his colleagues should have a place in the discussion.

"As scientists we can provide the analytical tools to inform the decision-making process," he says.

He doesn't worry about whether speaking up for science could derail his career or brand him as an activist. Because he is at a public university, he believes that it's his responsibility to train young scientists to engage with policymakers and the public.

"There are an awful lot of people that don't want to be stuck in the ivory tower. It's something we talk with about a lot with our students—how to make the most difference while maintaining credibility."

What do you think? Should scientists speak out on environmental issues? Explain why or why not in comments.

Read This Next

What drives elephant poaching? It’s not greed
How old are you, really? The answer is written on your face.
The rise of vegan safaris

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet