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Science Advocacy: What Is It and What Is the Role of Professional Societies?

1 January 2012 2,286 views No Comment
This column is written to inform ASA members about what the ASA is doing to promote the inclusion of statistics in policymaking and the funding of statistics research. To suggest science policy topics for the ASA to address, contact ASA Director of Science Policy Steve Pierson at pierson@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Pierson-color copySteve Pierson earned his PhD in physics from the University of Minnesota. He spent eight years in the physics department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later became head of government relations at the American Physical Society before joining the ASA as director of science policy.

The ASA Director of Science Policy’s job is to advocate on behalf of statisticians’ interests and to raise the profile of statisticians in policymaking. Both components are a form of science advocacy, yet they cover a broad range of activities, presenting one challenge to defining science advocacy. Another challenge is the many meanings advocacy has. I’ll address what science advocacy is by discussing various forms of it in a policy realm (understanding that the ASA and its members have been engaged in a broader range of science advocacy activities). I’ll then turn to the role—current and potential—of scientific professional associations.

Dimensions and Considerations of Policy-Related Science Advocacy

Two policy-related categories of science advocacy are policy for science and science for policy. Policy for science relates to the first aspect of my job, advocating on behalf of statisticians’ interests. This has ranged from supporting robust budgets for science research funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and federal statistical agencies to promoting professional development for K–12 statistics teachers and advocating for policies facilitating the participation of federal scientists in professional society leadership and governance. Policy for science often can be reactive, whether reacting to specific member needs or, these days, reacting to potential budget cuts.

Science for policy seeks to inform policymakers about the relevant science on an issue they are considering and relates more to the second aspect of my job, raising the profile of statisticians in policymaking. This has included informing Congress of statistical perspectives on climate change, advocating forensic science reform, and promoting risk-limiting audits to election officials.

One dimension of science advocacy in science for policy is how active a particular policy is promoted. Susan Solomon, lead author of the fourth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change addressed this dimension by distinguishing between “policy-prescriptive statements” and “policy-relevant statements.” For climate change issues, the ASA’s position—climate change is happening and human activity is the primary driver—stops well short of urging any policy action.

Stepping Outside the Fortress
Stepping outside the fortress paraphrases one theme to emerge from the session, “The Role of Statisticians in Policy,” that took place this summer at the International Statistical Institute World Congress in Dublin, Ireland. Organized by Peter Guttorp and chaired by Daniella Cocchi, the speakers were Bronwyn Harch, Dennis Trewin, Denise Lievesley, Guttorp, and Steve Pierson. Three themes present in at least a few of the presentations were the following:

    Stepping outside the fortress. Paraphrased using Harch’s words, this theme speaks to the necessity of statisticians (and scientists generally) to take the initiative and step outside the relative safety of their familiar surroundings to influence policy. As the phrase implies, there is some risk involved, which could include criticism about one’s statements and credentials. Australian climate scientists even received death threats this summer.

      Science is one input of the policymaking process. Policymakers often put more stock in inputs such as political (e.g., winning re-election) and economic considerations but, nevertheless, the goal of ensuring policymakers know the best available science remains.

        We must learn the language and needs of policymakers and others (e.g., journalists). If we wish to have a role in policymaking, we must put our messages and materials in terms that are easily accessible for the intended audience. We also must understand their needs and understanding. To expect policymakers to learn our language is naïve.

        On the other hand, the ASA’s board endorsed the National Academies’ call for an independent body to direct and oversee the forensic science reform urged in Strengthening Forensic Science in the U.S.: A Path Forward. The ASA also has advocated against a provision in pending legislation that would place such a forensic science oversight body in the Department of Justice.

        Since maintaining scientific credibility is paramount for the ASA and individual scientists, there are many guidelines to follow in providing science for policy. One is to speak only on issues within your scientific expertise, which may mean not answering certain questions or responding, “I don’t know.” If one decides to offer an opinion about a policy or scientific issue beyond one’s expertise, one should state that. One also should be aware of opposing scientific views and be prepared to address them.

        In general, speaking on issues within one’s scientific expertise means staying on the science side of the science/policy line. The ASA’s forensic science activity included policy recommendations that fall within the ASA’s expertise because it involves science administration—how to address the scientific deficiencies in forensic science and the importance of independence in conducting the science.

        I think an essential component of policy-related science advocacy is explaining science and the scientific process. Too few policymakers understand peer review, reproducibility, and scientific critique, so it’s imperative to understand and address the audience’s scientific literacy.

        Since starting this job in 2008, I’ve come to believe that elevating the profile of statistics within the science community is also important to raising the profile of statisticians in policymaking. If our fellow scientists don’t view us as equal partners, it makes it all the harder to convince policymakers to consult us. While the Strengthening Forensic Science panel included two statisticians, the National Academies’ America’s Climate Choices panels did not include a single statistician, despite the many data, data analysis, uncertainty, and decisionmaking issues. We need fellow scientists to recognize statistics as a mature, independent scientific discipline in order to make greater strides with policymakers.

        Role of Professional Associations

        When policymakers see scientific reports or interact with scientists, judging the veracity of the scientific claim can be daunting, especially when there are contradicting views (i.e., dueling experts). Scientific disagreement is, of course, common, but there are also individuals who might cherry pick the science in support of their cause. There is a need to support scientists engaged in policy-related science advocacy. As related in my sidebar, Stepping Outside the Fortress, scientists can come under criticism or attack by speaking out publicly on a science-related policy issue.

        Professional associations can help policymakers understand a complex scientific issue or deal with the dueling experts problem by assembling a group of experts to consider the literature and provide a review. The ASA’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change Policy, for example, produced such a review (PDF download) in response to a query from a congressional committee about the health effects of climate change.

        The American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs has produced a number of excellent and more extensive reports about energy and nuclear weapons issues. Through such reports, professional associations help policymakers by vetting, filtering, and synthesizing what can be a complicated literature. The National Academies and other groups also produce thorough and more interdisciplinary reports, so professional associations must find their niche to complement those reports.

        Professional associations also can help individual scientists on a range of science advocacy activities, whether it be providing guidance for meeting with policymakers, explanations of policymaking process or dynamics, support for testifying before Congress, or introductions to policymakers. If a professional association has a report like those described in the previous paragraph, it can provide cover for scientists speaking publicly on the issues, assuming they speak in agreement with the report. Professional associations also can help organize the advocacy activity of scientists, thereby amplifying their voice, especially when other organizations are engaged.

        There are many challenges to a professional association in fulfilling the potential described here. One challenge for producing policy-relevant reports is judging in advance what topics will be of interest to produce the reports in time for them to be helpful. Another is finding the volunteer time to produce such reports. Staff resource time is also a challenge, since policy staff members are usually few in number and often must prioritize policy-for-science issues. These and other challenges may mean professional associations cannot be as responsive as policymakers need.

        Returning to the first question in this column’s title, I think the breadth of activities included under the science advocacy umbrella yields the exercise of trying to define science advocacy unproductive, at least for my purposes. Instead, I think it is better to think about the policy-related science advocacy in the dimensions of science-for-policy/policy-for-science and policy-relevant/policy-prescriptive. Scientific professional associations can play important, value-adding roles in policy-related science advocacy by facilitating constructive interactions between scientists and policymakers, but they must be careful to protect their credibility and integrity by basing our activities within our scientific expertise.

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