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How to Lose Your Political

Virginity while Keeping Your
Scientific Credibility

M any biologists and other scientists shy away

from the political process. The reasons for this lack of
involvement include unfamiliarity with the legislative and
ultimately reaching compromise with individuals who pro-
fess and represent differing values. As one member of Con-
gress said to me, “I vote for a living.” Not only do legislators
other political processes, concerns that their science will vote for a living, but their ability to earn a living as an elected
somehow be compromised, and the dissatisfaction that many voting representative depends on their ability to convince
Americans feel with the political system. Yet there are many the voting public to select them for this job. Their account-
reasons—self-interest and the interests of the biota we study— ability comes up for ratification every two or six years, when
for biologists to become educated about the political system they request that their employers—the voting public—grant
and involved politically. Involvement can take a wide variety them a job extension.
of forms, such as writing a letter that provides information Even though the culture and values of the political system
about a topic of public debate, giving testimony at a public are very different from the culture of science, where the un-
hearing, signing a letter that requests a particular action, or compromising search for truth is paramount, scientists have
becoming involved in helping someone get elected to public much to offer to the political process, including
office. • specialized expert knowledge
As Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) told the League • critical thinking
of Conservation Voters—the group created by leaders of the
• objectivity
environmental movement to evaluate legislators and to help
elect pro-environment candidates —at their Earth Day gath- • data and informed interpretations
ering in 1999,“Without politics, there is no conservation; with- • credibility
out politics, there is no wilderness.” Wilderness has existed since • independence
the earliest days of the planet, when all was wilderness. But un- • wisdom
til wilderness in the United States was protected by an act of
Congress, and until individual wilderness areas were set aside, Each of these is a valuable commodity that can help the de-
wilderness was not safe. It is also safe to say that, although leg- cisionmaking process.
islation alone will not conserve biodiversity, without politics In addition to our responsibilities as citizens in a democ-
there will be no biodiversity. racy, we have additional responsibilities as scientists claiming
For scientists to begin to interact with the political system, the attributes listed above to contribute them to the political
it is necessary to understand something about the job of
making political decisions in our democracy. Elected officials David E. Blockstein (e-mail: David@NCSEonline.org) is a senior scien-
are a special class of decisionmakers whose profession is to tist with the National Council for Science and the Environment, Wash-
make decisions based on their perceptions of the views of the ington, DC 20006. As the 1987–1988 Congressional Science Fellow
people who elect them. Their job description includes mak- of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and American Society
ing decisions, choosing among alternatives, allocating re- of Zoologists, Dr. Blockstein worked with the environment subcommittee
sources that are usually insufficient for the tasks required, bal- of the House science committee to prepare the National Biological Di-
ancing or choosing among competing values and interests, and versity Conservation and Environmental Research Act. He is the chair
of the Ornithological Council and a Fellow of the American Ornitholo-
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a paper presented at the gists’ Union. His research focuses on ecology and conservation of pi-
annual meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in June 1999. geons and doves. © 2002 American Institute of Biological Sciences.

January 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 1 • BioScience 91


process. Most scientists are recipients of public funds for our leagues and to our students. The concern about advocacy is
research. As part of the social contract by which society sup- often no more than a red herring pulled out of the basket by
ports science, we are obligated to provide some payback by those who have little experience with the decisionmaking
sharing the fruits of our knowledge with society. environment.
As biologists, our professional responsibility is even deeper. I argue that there is a continuum from data to advocacy
In concluding his term as president of the Society for Con- (Figure 1). All scientific reporting, whether among scientists
servation Biology, Tom Lovejoy wrote an essay entitled “Obli- or to a nonscientific audience, involves interpretation and con-
gations of a Biologist” (Lovejoy 1989). He points out that we textualization. Collecting and interpretating data in a scien-
biologists have a responsibility to use our science, and to tific setting are, of course, what all scientists do. Interpreting
speak out as advocates for biodiversity. I keep this essay above data for lay people is what all educators do.
my desk.
Data → Interpretation → Advice → Counsel → Advocacy
Our professional responsibility is a public responsibility. It
is also a moral responsibility. The ethics of human civilization
Figure 1. The data-to-advocacy continuum.
compel that if we see a person who is injured, we have an oblig-
ation to help. Those who have first aid or medical training have Yet many of us are uncomfortable extending this approach
a particular obligation to use their specialized knowledge to to questions of policy and management. Admittedly, it is
help the injured. Physicians have codified this ethical pro- much messier. Science is never straightforward and applica-
fessional responsibility as the Hippocratic oath. tions of science to policy are even less so. The answer to the
Perhaps we biologists should have a similar oath. It is more policy question is never “found in Table 1.”
complicated, because we have research subjects, not patients. There is always a need for interpretation, as well as data. The
Yet if we see a planet or an ecosystem or a biota that is being application of science to any problem, whether it is a scien-
injured, we have an obligation to help. If our special training tific problem, a resource-management problem, or a policy
allows us to see something and understand something bet- decision, involves judgment.Yet who is better qualified to pro-
ter than the average person, our obligation to use that knowl- vide this judgment than scientists? Many scientists believe that
edge is even greater. Those of us who by virtue of our edu- at some point on this data-to-advocacy continuum, there is
cation can see that we live in the proverbial “world of wounds” a line that we should not cross. If it exists, the line is certainly
(Leopold 1953) have both professional and personal obliga- gray, and scientists disagree on where to place that line. Many
tions to try to heal those wounds. I don’t think that any bi- will say that it is a slippery slope. Each scientist should find
ologist would argue that we should be doing nothing; indeed, a place where he or she personally feels comfortable and
anyone within the biological science community who self- should not be critical of other scientists whose personal val-
identifies as a conservation biologist has made a professional ues may put them at different points along the continuum.
commitment to help heal our embattled planet. Advocacy has a bad reputation among some scientists.
Nobel laureate chemists Mario Molina and Sherwood The dictionary definition of an advocate is “one that pleads
Rowland presented the first Senator John H. Chafee Memo- the cause of another.”What is wrong with pleading the cause
rial Lecture on Science and the Environment at the first Na- of another, particularly if the other—biodiversity, in this
tional Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment in case—can’t plead its own case? If biologists are not advocates
December 2000 (Rowland and Molina 2001). Molina asked for biodiversity, who will be? Are we not to be blamed if we
rhetorically, “Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a walk away from the scene of an accident or crime and do not
paper? Isn’t it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that help in any way?
you have found something that can affect the environment, A legitimate concern among scientists is that if we be-
isn’t it your responsibility to actually do something about it, come advocates, we somehow tarnish our credibility. Credi-
enough so that action actually takes place?” Rowland con- ble is defined as “capable of being believed.” Like virginity, cred-
cluded the lecture by answering a question about his move ibility can be lost only once.
from the lab into advocacy: “If not us, who? If not now, There is a perception among scientists that, if we “go be-
when?” yond our data” and interpret, recommend, counsel, or ad-
Yet our scientific skills and understanding may not be suf- vocate that a particular action be taken, somehow our cred-
ficient for us to apply our knowledge in a decisionmaking con- ibility is tarnished. We need to examine this perception and
text. Our scientific training often does not include interaction to ask who is judging our credibility. The peer review process
with political and social institutions and those who populate does not discriminate as to whether the author has been an
them. Moreover, many scientists become quite wary and in- advocate or has visited his congressional representative or has
appropriately characterize any interaction with the legislative been on the board of an environmental group. However, a
decisionmaking process as “advocacy.”And many scientists re- tenure and promotion committee might.
gard advocacy as anathema. Politicians, on the other hand, expect scientists to have an
Yet the skills necessary to present scientific information to agenda or a purpose. They are suspicious of those who say they
decisionmakers, who are lay people, are really only extensions don’t have one. However, they generally have high expecta-
of the skills we use to present scientific information to our col- tions that science will provide answers that they can trust. De-

92 BioScience • January 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 1


Table 1. Seventeen cardinal rules for working with Congress.

1. Convey that you understand something about Congress.

2. Demonstrate your grasp of the fundamentals of the congressional decisionmaking system.
3. Don’t seek support of science as an entitlement.
4. Don’t convey negative attitudes about politics and politicians.
5. Perform good intelligence gathering in advance.
6. Always use a systematic checklist.
7. Do your homework on the issue or problem.
8. Timing is vital.
9. Understand congressional limitations.
10. Make it easy for those in Congress to help you.
11. Keep the “bottom line” in mind.
12. Use time—yours and theirs—effectively.
13. Remember that members and staff are mostly generalists.
14. Don’t patronize either members or staff.
15. Don’t underestimate the role of staff in Congress.
16. Consider and offer appropriate follow-up.
17. Remember that the great majority of members and staff are intelligent, hardworking,
and dedicated to public service.

Source: From Wells 1993 (© 1993 by American Association for the Advancement of Science).

spite the pedestal that we scientists have placed ourselves litically clueless scientist. That may be only a slight exagger-
upon, nobody expects scientists to be infallible. ation. All Americans, other than those living in Washington,
Here are a few guidelines on how to maintain scientific cred- DC, have two elected senators and a member of the House of
ibility while going beyond presentation of data. Representatives. These people work for the public. Their abil-
1. Follow the facts and tell the truth. ity to keep their jobs depends on keeping the public happy (or
2. Obey the “rules” of science. at least the majority of the people who actually vote). There
are also a host of local and state elected officials who also work
—Base interpretation upon data and conclusions that
for the public, who are generally even more accessible, whose
are peer reviewed.
areas of responsibility have an even greater effect on a day-
—Explain how conclusions are reached.
to-day basis (such as local land use planning), and who hear
—Present margins of error. from scientists even less frequently. Although I very much agree
3. Present caveats. with the adage “think globally, act locally,” my focus here is
4. Identify uncertainty. on conversations with congressional representatives and sen-
5. Help to distinguish between uncertainty and guesswork. ators. However, the lessons I present apply broadly to com-
munication with elected officials anywhere in the United
6. Avoid hyperbole.
States and probably in other countries too.
As Lovejoy (1989) pointed out,“If we explain what we are The first thing to know is that elected officials are very busy
doing, we in no way compromise our scientific credibility.” and have lots of demands on them. However, they also have
Molina emphasized that “we need to make clear when we are staff who work for them whose job it is to supply the best pos-
speaking as scientists and when we are expressing our values” sible information on issues to their bosses. Staff are generally
(Rowland and Molina 2001). young (just out of college) and don’t have much scientific
Now that I’ve answered the second part of the question on background—freshman biology class may have been their last
my title, let’s go to the first part, losing your political virgin- formal education in science. Each congressional office has one
ity. Without being too graphic, there are three main methods: (or, rarely, more) legislative assistant who handles environ-
1. Do it yourself. mental issues. Staff members like to talk to scientists because
2. Do it with a group. scientists give them information. Information is the cur-
rency of Washington (money is, too). Information is power.
3. Pay someone else to do it for you.
Scientists have it. However, Washington has an oral culture.
Doing it yourself Staff are not interested and don’t have time to read your the-
A recent editorial in Science (van der Vink 1997) framed the sis or a pile of reprints. As painful as it may be to scientists,
question as the scientifically illiterate politician versus the po- a one-page summary is the most that they will read.

January 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 1 • BioScience 93


Harold Hansen, former staff director of the House sci- Congress (Table 1). A whole industry has developed to pro-
ence committee, stated that the first two commandments are vide information about Congress. The best publications are
“Know thy congressmember (personally)” and “Know about those by the National Journal company, including the annual
thy congressmember.” The best place to get to know your con- Almanac of American Politics (Barone and Cohen 2001). The
gressmember is in the home district where you both live. In- League of Conservation Voters provides environmental pro-
vite the representative or senator to your university, your files of members of Congress and compiles an annual score-
laboratory, or your field site. Show him or her what you are card of their voting record at www.lcv.org. The Library of
doing with taxpayer money and explain why it is important Congress Thomas system (www.thomas.loc.gov) provides ac-
and beneficial to society. You will be more effective if you do cess to all official congressional Web sites, including con-
not come with a political agenda. Instead, build up a rela- gressional directories, hearing schedules, legislation, and the
tionship so that you can be relied upon as a trusted source on Congressional Record. Exclusive access to over 1,000 Con-
scientific and environmental issues. gressional Research Service reports on policy issues relating
There are many resources for scientists who want to speak to the environment and natural resources, and a plethora of
with congressional people. William Wells (1993), who has other online resources, are available at the National Library
made a career of helping scientists work with politicians, has for the Environment www.cnie.org/NLE, maintained by the
come up with 17 cardinal rules for scientists working with National Council for Science and the Environment.

How to Influence Federal Decisionmaking—Without Writing a Single Letter!

Is your in-box stuffed with pleas from of advisory committees that agencies are forest management, forest ecology, land-
AIBS and other professional organiza- allowed to establish. The number of scape ecology, forest hydrology, range
tions and interest groups asking you to advisory committees fell from 1,305 in ecology and management, animal ecolo-
write to Congress? Would you like a fiscal year 1993 to 956 committees in fis- gy, natural resource law, sociology and
more direct opportunity to influence cal year 2000. organizational theory, and public partic-
federal decisionmaking? Consider serv- ipation and dispute resolution. The
Whatever their limitations, federal advi- Invasive Species Task Force Advisory
ing on a federal advisory committee
sory committees offer scientists myriad Committee, an interdepartmental entity,
(FAC). You won’t be alone: Over 52,000
opportunities to contribute directly to has a number of nongovernment scien-
individuals served on 956 federal adviso-
the federal decisionmaking process. tists helping to devise appropriate poli-
ry committees last year.
Probably the most high-profile science cies and programs to address this thorny
The federal government recognizes the FAC is the Presidents’ Committee of issue. At the Environmental Protection
value of expert advice, ideas, and diverse Advisors on Science and Technology. Agency, the sole function of the
opinions offered by various advisory The National Science Foundation’s disci- Endocrine Disruptor Screening and
groups to federal agencies. But to avert pline-oriented advisory committees, Testing Advisory Committee was to rec-
undue influence by special interest advisory panels, and special emphasis ommend to EPA methods and proce-
groups and closed-door decisionmaking, panels are all federal advisory commit- dures to detect and characterize
input from outside groups is regulated tees. They serve the directorates, endocrine activity of pesticides, com-
by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, addressing such issues as priority invest- mercial chemicals, and environmental
which established a regulatory scheme ment areas in research disciplines; ways contaminants. At the Department of the
for the establishment, membership, and in which the directorate’s mission, pro- Interior, one FAC focuses on the Going-
operation of such entities. Requirements grams, and goals can best serve the sci- to-the-Sun Road.
for appointments of members, public entific community; institutional admin-
meetings, and public reporting of min- istration and policy; and promotion of Other FACs are more general. The EPA’s
utes and recommendations were intend- high-quality graduate and undergradu- Science Advisory Board (SAB) is a tech-
ed to ensure that the decisions of advi- ate education in various disciplines. nical review panel that provides scientif-
sory committees would be open and ic advice on many subjects. SAB is
Especially within the Department of the unusual in that it was established by
impartial. Federal advisory committees
Interior, the US Department of Agricul- Congress, rather than by the agency
can be created by federal agencies, by
ture, and the Environmental Protection itself, to provide independent scientific
Congress, or by the president.
Agency, scientists are invited to join var- and engineering advice to the EPA
Some critics say that FACA’s procedural ious science or resource management administrator on the technical basis for
requirements, together with amend- advisory committees. Some focus on EPA regulations. It is now formal prac-
ments intended to prevent FAC mission specific issues. The US Department of tice that many major scientific points
creep and senility, have a “chilling” effect Agriculture’s 1999 forest management associated with environmental problems
on public participation in environmen- planning regulations were based in large are reviewed by SAB. Generally, SAB
tal decisionmaking (Long and Beierle part on the recommendations of the deals with risk assessment issues associ-
1999). The Clinton administration Committee of Scientists. These 13 ated with various control options under
imposed policies that limit the number experts represented such disciplines as consideration by the EPA. Its 10 sub-

94 BioScience • January 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 1


Doing it collectively on specific legislation. The Society for Conservation Biology

One of the best vehicles for scientists to provide information (SCB) has recently opened an executive office in Washington,
to policymakers is through scientific professional societies. DC, and hired Alan Thornhill as its first executive director. One
These societies have differing philosophies regarding public of the purposes of this office is to allow SCB to provide in-
policy. Most of the big societies recognize that it is necessary formation relevant to the national decisionmaking process on
to be involved in policy issues. Most societies are engaged in natural resource issues. The 10 ornithological societies in
advocacy on behalf of the direct interests of their members, North America and the Caribbean joined together in 1993 to
particularly when it comes to funding and regulatory issues form the Ornithological Council, which has a mission to
(such as research permits). More challenging is to what ex- provide scientific information about birds to decisionmak-
tent and how societies should be involved in social issues, such ers and others needing this information.
as the teaching of evolution, animal welfare, and conservation. The American Association for the Advancement of Science
Biomedical societies and others hire lobbyists to repre- (AAAS) has a substantial public policy program. AAAS rarely
sent them in the constant chase for the federal dollar and to takes stands on issues. Through its public policy program,
help present the perspectives of their members on national AAAS provides valuable resources to educate scientists about
issues of concern. The American Institute of Biological Sci- the political process and to educate politicians about sci-
ences (AIBS) has a long tenure in Washington, DC, and has ence. For more than 25 years, AAAS has coordinated a Con-
recently reactivated its public policy program after several gressional Science Fellow Program. This program provides sci-
years’ hiatus (see sidebar). This office is staffed by Adrienne entists with an incomparable year-long experience working
Froelich and Ellen Paul. The Ecological Society of America as a scientific expert on a congressional staff. The program is
(ESA) has a very active public policy program that prepares a career-changing and life-changing experience for most Fel-
white papers, provides briefings for politicians and staff, lows, including myself. Many former Fellows occupy impor-
communicates with the press, and works closely with agen- tant positions in national science policy, in the government
cies. ESA, like many scientific societies, rarely takes positions and outside the government. Fellows are sponsored by indi-

Continued from previous page

committees provide expertise on diverse including ranchers, environmental When new agency FACs are created or
subjects, including radiation, air pollu- groups, tribes, state and local govern- vacancies occur on existing FACs,
tion, and environmental economics. ment officials, academia, and other pub- notices are published in the Federal Reg-
Under the US Department of Agricul- lic land users. Other local councils cover ister. AIBS sends these notices to its
ture’s new forest management planning various rivers, national parks, and recre- member societies and organizations via
regulations, biennial, independent peer ation areas. the biweekly policy update. Agencies
review of the monitoring program is generally identify potential members of
mandated. Outside scientists will also Opportunities for direct participation
exist even in international affairs. The highly specialized committees, but they
form regional science advisory boards are required by law to consider for
and a national board will provide guid- US Department of State’s advisory com-
mittees counsel the US National Section membership any interested parties with
ance on issues of national significance.
of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna professional or personal qualifications or
The Department of Defense seeks advice
Commission and the US Section of the experience that might contribute the
from its Science Board, Ocean Research
Board, Strategic Environmental Research North Pacific Anadromous Fish Com- functions and tasks to be performed.
and Development Program Scientific mission. Advisors sometimes accompany Scientists can and should seek appoint-
Advisory Board, and American Heritage US delegations to meetings of the Unit- ment. Endorsement from scientific soci-
Rivers Initiative Advisory Committee. In ed Nations Food and Agriculture Orga- eties is helpful and should be submitted
1998, the Bureau of Land Management nization and a host of other conferences for agencies’ consideration. Committee
created a Science Advisory Board. focused on, for example, genetically members typically attend two to four
modified organisms; and US representa- meetings each year. Travel expenses, and
Still other FACs focus on local issues. tives to the Subsidiary Body on Science, occasionally compensation, are paid by
The Bureau of Land Management’s 23 Technical, and Technological Advice of the agency.
Resource Advisory Councils, all in the the Convention on Biodiversity, or to
western states, provide advice on the the Scientific Assessment Panel of the
management of public lands and Montreal Protocol, regularly consult Reference cited
resources. The councils are citizen-based with outside experts. Long RJ, Beierle TC. 1999. The Federal Advisory
groups that advise the Bureau on stan- Committee Act and Public Participation in En-
dards of rangeland health and guidelines All FACs, and contact information for vironmental Policy. Washington (DC): Re-
for grazing management. Each council them, are listed on the General Services sources for the Future. (28 November 2001;
consists of 12 to 15 members from Administration Web site, www.policy www.rff.org/CFDOCS/disc_papers/PDF_files/
diverse interests in local communities, works.gov/org/main/mc/index-r.htm. 9917.pdf)

January 2002 / Vol. 52 No. 1 • BioScience 95


vidual societies. AIBS has cosponsored fellows from time to ically, there is also a broad range of the political spectrum that
time (see below). reacts negatively to many environmental groups.
Finally, scientists, like any other citizen, can add their drops
Doing it anonymously to “the mother’s milk of politics.” Campaign contributions can
(Paying someone else to do it) be given individually to the candidate of one’s choice, or they
It is important to understand that many scientists simply do can be bundled with other contributions through political ac-
not feel comfortable speaking with congressional staff, writ- tion committees, principally the League of Conservation
ing letters, testifying, serving on public policy committees, or Voters or the Sierra Club, both of which take an active part
participating in the policy process by other personal means in election campaigns.
(I hope that they do, at least, vote). These people can still con- However one approaches it, biologists have a responsibil-
tribute to improving the connection between science and ity to take advantage of the opportunities offered in our de-
decisionmaking. They can follow the time-honored method mocratic system and use them for the conservation of bio-
of helping to fund those who are more skilled in speaking out diversity.
for their interests. Financial contributions are generally anony-
mous and thus cannot be said to harm anyone’s scientific cred- References cited
ibility. Barone M, Cohen, R. 2001. Almanac of American Politics 2002. Washing-
Some scientific societies, such as The Wildlife Society, have ton (DC): National Journal Group.
Leopold LB. 1953. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. New
a surcharge to their society dues to operate their public pol- York: Oxford University Press.
icy programs. My congressional fellowship in 1987–1988 was Lovejoy TB. 1989. Obligations of a biologist. Conservation Biology 3:
cosponsored by AIBS and the American Society of Zoologists 329–330.
(now the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology), Rowland FS, Molina MJ. 2001. The CFC-Ozone Puzzle: Environmental Sci-
which financed their part of my fellowship through voluntary ence in the Global Arena. The John H. Chafee Memorial Lecture on Sci-
ence and the Environment, presented at the First National Conference
contributions from individuals. The Ornithological Council on Science, Policy and the Environment. Washington (DC): National
is financed by membership fees from its member societies and Council for Science and the Environment.
by voluntary contributions from individual ornithologists. van der Vink GE. 1997. Scientifically Illiterate vs. Politically Clueless. Science
Most conservation biologists belong to one or more envi- 276: 1175.
ronmental groups. Many of these groups have a strong sci- Wells WG Jr. 1993. Working with Congress: A Practical Guide for Scientists
and Engineers. Washington (DC): American Association for the Ad-
entific basis. Although they are generally very effective polit- vancement of Science.

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