Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Scientists as political activists?

I mentioned previously the climate change conference held in Copenhagen, which was designed to stimulate some activism on the part of scientists in preparation for December's much anticipated international climate change conference. Despite this goal, however, one point made repeatedly was that "formulating an action plan to curb climate change is not the job of scientists."

Herein lies a dilemma (wrapped inside a conundrum, or is it the other way around).

Scientists traditionally prefer to do the science and leave the policy development to others. For one thing, public policy must consider many more things than just the science. There are sociological, economic, political, and pragmatic considerations. But at the same time politicians are asking scientists, for example climate change scientists, what action they should take to address the problem. Unfortunately, while they can predict what may happen, it's even more difficult to provide guidance on what to do about it. This is true for a couple of reasons.

First, models can never provide a perfect prediction of how and where the climate will change. One participant in Copenhagen noted: "Tell me what the stock market will do in 100 years and I will tell you what the climate will do." Second, most climate scientists will tell you that their role does not include policy formulation. They can provide scenarios of what will happen if emissions hit certain thresholds, but when politicians ask what is the absolute maximum amount of CO2 we should allow, there is no easy answer. In the end, it depends on how much risk we are willing to take. That, and how good we are at predicting tipping points.

So the organizers of the Copenhagen conference hoped that they can encourage scientists to take a more active role and speak not as scientists but as concerned citizens. Some may feel uncomfortable with "blurring the line between science and activism," but they also know that no one understands the risks better than they do and no one is better placed to give informed opinions.

One positive note from the current Obama administration is that he has placed scientists in key appointee positions, jobs that too often in the past have gone to political friends whether they know anything about science or not. These scientists as risk managers are "people who are willing and able to weigh up the risks, costs and benefits of various degrees of action."

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