Sunday, February 15, 2009

Politicians as "Scientists" - Is This a Good or a Bad Thing?

This past week, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore urged scientists to exert their influence on global climate change. In short, he said that scientists must play a more active role in how their science is used to make policy. "For those of you who haven't communicated, there is no time to sit back," Gore says.

Which, of course, begs the question of how this can be accomplished? Should scientists become "Issue Advocates" as described in Roger A. Pielke Jr.'s book "The Honest Broker," or should they be the "Science Arbiter?"

But it also begs the question, what role should politicians play in advocating science? Gore himself has been a highly visible icon communicating the science of global warming to the public and to the legislators with whom he once worked. In one sense, he has been far better at communicating the issue than have the scientists themselves. But in another sense, he has become a foil for those who say that global warming is merely a liberal political movement and scientists are only claiming there is a crisis to get funding. And we all remember the Terry Schiavo case when then Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist took the Senate floor and challenged the diagnosis of Schiavo's physicians that she was in a persistent vegetative state: "I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office." While Frist was a medical doctor prior to entering politics, many medical scientists took offense to him making a diagnosis based solely on an edited video tape.

Both Gore and Frist's advocacy have provided fodder for discussion about the relative roles of politicians in science and scientists in politics. Are they communicating from knowledge, or are they using the science to further their political ideologies? Many arguments have been offered for both sides of the discussion.

In his speech last week to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Gore encouraged the "world of science" and "the world of politics" to work together to respond to the climate crisis. He called for the scientist to deliver the sense of emergency to their colleagues, networks, and policy makers. In essence, he called on scientists to be issue advocates.

No comments: