John Vucetich on Isle Royale's Washington Harbor
John Vucetich on Isle Royale's Washington Harbor Photo by George Desort
John Vucetich
"Science can never tell us what we ought to do or how we ought to behave. Science only describes the way the world is." -John Vucetich
Michael Nelson
"The question is not 'Is advocacy acceptable?' but 'Which kinds of advocacy are acceptable?' and how we as a scientific community should go about it." -Michael Nelson
“Science can never tell us what we ought to do or how we ought to behave. Science only describes the way the world is.”

An article coauthored by Vucetich and Nelson on ethics and sustainability is available online.

To view a video on John Vucetich’s research on the wolves and moose of Isle Royale, go to www.techtube.mtu.edu/wolf-moose.

Science on the Opinion Page

by Jennifer Donovan

Michigan Tech ecologist John Vucetich says scientists have a moral obligation to become policy advocates. Not everyone agrees.


Scientists collect and analyze facts. Data. Information. Policy advocates use—or sometimes misuse—data to support or condemn one public policy or another. The facts about global climate change prove that we should (or shouldn't) ban coal-fired power plants, they might say. Are there irreconcilable differences between science and advocacy? Can good scientists also be advocates? Should they be?

The answers—like so many in this complex, interwoven world—are yes, no, and sometimes.

John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist and associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, believes that scientists are "citizens first and scientists second." So, he says, "they have a responsibility to advocate to the best of their abilities and in a justified and transparent manner."

The key phrase is easy to miss: "in a justified and transparent manner." In other words, scientists engaged in advocacy are obligated to clearly explain the scientific knowledge that is relevant to a policy issue, then explain the related value judgments, and then provide an honest justification for why the science and the values together suggest favoring one policy or another. In doing so, says Vucetich, they must go to great lengths to distinguish which portions of their case represent science and which involve value judgments.

This approach is a fundamental modus operandi for another academic discipline with a long and honorable history: ethics. Vucetich and environmental ethicist Michael Nelson of Michigan State University (MSU) feel that the interdependence of ecology and ethics is as important as it is underappreciated. Acting on that concern, they have collaborated on several professional journal articles over the past few years, examining the intersections of environmental science and environmental ethics. One, published in Conservation Biology in 2009 and titled "On Advocacy by Environmental Scientists: What, Whether, Why, and How," tackled the issue head-on. Another, in the summer 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional, critiqued the popular North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, pointing out "what's flawed, what's missing, what's needed." A third article, published in BioScience, deconstructed the familiar buzzword "sustainability," daring to ask whether it is "virtuous or vulgar." And in a commentary published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the ecologist and the ethicist examined "The Moral Obligations of Scientists."

Why do Vucetich and Nelson feel so strongly about the marriage of science and ethics?

"Science can never tell us what we ought to do or how we ought to behave," Vucetich explains. "Science only describes the way the world is." Ethics by itself can't tell us what to do either, he adds. "Ethics needs science—facts about the world—to be properly informed."

The unity of science and ethics

So Vucetich and Nelson cofounded the Conservation Ethics Group (CEG) to bring science and ethics together to bear on environmental policy issues. Earlier this year, the group won the 2011 Excellence Award in Interdisciplinary Scholarship from the MSU chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, the nation's oldest and most selective collegiate honor society embracing all academic disciplines.

CEG has sponsored several workshops for university faculty members, graduate students, leaders of environmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations concerned with the environment, to teach them to bring together the principles of ecological science and environmental ethics. They examined the science and ethics of determining whether a species is endangered, the efficacy of hope as a philosophical foundation for sustainability, the conflict between conservation ethics and animal welfare ethics. It's an interdisciplinary approach that should enable them to make better natural resources management decisions, says Vucetich.

Do facts and ethics, science and advocacy, complement and enhance each other? Or do they make strange bedfellows?

That's where it gets tricky. Data are objective; the scientist's feelings and beliefs about their policy implications are not. "I think complete objectivity and neutrality is a myth," says Pat Lederle, an adjunct associate professor in MSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. On the other hand, he says, "I think it is imperative to provide information to decision makers and to argue one's case as strongly as we can."

Covert advocacy

But scientists need to watch out for what natural resources professor Robert Lackey calls "covert" or "stealth" advocacy. Lackey, who worked for years in the research arm of the Environmental Protection Agency, now teaches natural resources and ecological policy at Oregon State University.

"Scientists are uniquely qualified to participate in public policy deliberations, and they should," he says, "but advocating for their policy preferences is not appropriate."

And a scientist's advocacy can slip in without the policymakers, the public—or sometimes even the scientists themselves—noticing it. Lackey calls it "normative science": science that embeds an unspoken policy preference. It happens when unstated assumptions are made, and science is used to promote or refute policies based on those assumptions.

An organization or an individual can get captured by an ideology, Lackey says, and then make value statements masked as scientific fact. For example, a scientist who assumes that biodiversity is good will present facts about a loss of biodiversity as a problem that society needs to address. "'Good' or 'bad' isn't a scientific statement; it's a policy statement," Lackey says. "It's the difference between 'is' and 'ought.'"

People turn to science to get the cold, unvarnished facts. If instead they get normative science with built-in policy preferences, that's going to muddy the policy-making waters, he says. "All science can and should do is say, 'Here are the facts, and here are the options.'"

Vucetich believes that covert advocacy is a threat to the integrity of a scientist. "The antidote to covert advocacy is justified and transparent advocacy," he says. "However, clearly justifying your case and distinguishing science and values along the way is not easy. It requires skill and practice."

A question of credibility

There's another issue that looms large in the scientist-as-advocate debate, and that's professional credibility. There are scientists who say flatly that any colleague who advocates for a public policy based on his or her science is degrading if not destroying credibility with peers. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that scientists have a moral obligation to be advocates. The late Strachan Donnelley, the founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, once took ecologists to task, saying, "They have failed to effectively grab us citizens by the throat and forcibly make us understand and take to heart that human communities and their activities, economic and otherwise, are nestled within wider and vulnerable living systems."

Nelson doesn't think that his advocacy of environmental policies has damaged his credibility. "I have no reason to believe that my own advocacy has hurt me professionally," he says. "If anything, this kind of work has garnered much positive professional attention." There's a flip side to the credibility coin, he adds, an assumption that credibility will be maintained if one is not perceived as an advocate. "I think that's probably a dangerous delusion," he states.

Vucetich considers the credibility issue a bit of a red herring. "Credibility is an ability to inspire trust, and if I always act in a transparently trustworthy manner, yet someone refuses to trust me, then I have lost credibility with that person. However, the risk of losing credibility in this way is not an adequate reason to refrain from justified and transparent advocacy. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and a model citizen-scientist, certainly didn't think so."

And credibility "can cut both ways," says Lederle. "If we don't make the strongest argument possible, that can hurt our credibility with our peers and the public because we are not doing our job the best we can. If we make too strong a case, we can lose credibility with decision makers and hurt the chances of policy adoption. I'm not so worried about peers, not nearly as much as I am about those who make the policy decisions."

Ultimately, Nelson concludes, "The question is not 'Is advocacy acceptable?' but 'Which kinds of advocacy are acceptable?' and how we as a scientific community should go about it."