Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?
Nicole Ozer: It’s not always clear how science should be used, and what its limits are, and what is “true” and “false.” Does science itself have any limits? In the case of climate change, there is no single answer to those questions. To my mind, however, it’s not clear that science should play much of a role in the public discussion over whether to fight climate change. There’s only so much we can say in public without being labeled as an alarmist (which means we are wrong), or out of touch with the public’s concerns about climate change. I’m sure a lot of people are asking themselves this question daily: How do we best balance the competing demands of science and activism?
I think it is legitimate if scientists are, for example, working with organizations who may engage in advocacy, but that does not imply that the scientist is acting as an activist in those organizations. For example, some biologists have been involved with community organization for years, and some have even been elected to positions in local, state and national government, with the goal of improving public policy through their research.
At the same time, I also think it’s essential for scientists to be clear about the limits of their authority, and to engage in that very public process where we try to do the most good. I find that many scientists are interested in those types of activities, and it can be beneficial for both parties to have those discussions. For example, when I was on the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ board of overseers, I met a number of scientists who were very interested in public policy, but I also met scientists who were very interested in making sure that science was always supported. I think they are of similar interests, but we can’t deny that those are not always the same thing, and that to some extent they are mutually exclusive goals. I think they’ve proven that the public policy community is very willing to engage in this kind of dialogue.