Do academics and government scientists always offer “objective science” to policy makers?

Ban advocates typically state that government scientist have no reason to be bias towards policy decisions.  That statement is false and very misleading.  I know that it may be a surprise to find that some politician do mislead their constituents (look no further than Minnesota), but I am afraid it is true.  In addition, the statement that academic or government scientists are unable to be bias towards a particular policy is nothing short of moronic.  Bias is inherent in all research.  How bias is dealt with in research is the true issue at hand.

To advocate or not to advocate….

The academic or government scientist that who does have a policy preference must decide to continue to operate as s scientific expert without policy preferences or act as policy advocates and not be scientific expert (Blockstein, 2002).  Academics or government scientists do have the right to participate in decision making of our government and should do so as they see fit, however, they cannot be advocates and experts.  Scientists that do advocate policy risk losing scientific credibility.  Credibility is much like trust in that it is easy to lose and difficult to regain.  However some scientists feel that they can be experts and policy advocates.  This is often referred to as stealth advocacy where scientist’s true motivations are not apparent.  In this posting we will offer various reasons why scientist enter into policy advocacy.

Publish or perish

Academics operate in the “publish or perish” environment in order to maintain position or advance within the university system(Fanelli, 2010).  Fanelli (2010) has shown that the pressure to publish may increase bias and jeopardize scientific integrity.  In addition, scientists know that journals tend to publish positive or significant articles (Fanelli, 2010; Hayer et al., 2013).  Publishing articles that are hot button topics always increases the chance of getting published.  Significant article can be created by pandering to the mass media especially if the story has a sensationalistic twist. 

It would appear that the USGS scientists operate under the “publish or perish” environment as well.  Success at USGS NAQWA is measured by the number of website hits and news mentions (National Research Council, 2012).  Based upon email evidence, USGS scientists B and P has their own “friendly” press contacts that they would notify as soon as one of their articles were published.  Examples of these friendly reporters are Michael Hawthorne from the Chicago Tribune and Robert McClure from InvestigateWest.  One should not forget that USGS is also a huge organization with its own media department that issues press releases and has the resources only a huge multi-national corporation would have. 

 Money in the form of research grants-Do not bite the hand that feeds you

  Academics vie for funding (via government grants) to perform research.  One interesting fact that many of the so-called confirmatory studies of the USGS work was funded by the USGS.  This funding of politically motivated research could be considered a breach of scientific integrity.  When the USGS is funding confirmatory research, bias could be created as it may be detrimental to the researcher if their finding counter the research of the funding agency (losing the chance for future funding).  Scientific integrity is questioned whenever science is not allowed to self-correct (Ioannidis, 2012). 

 

References

 

Blockstein, D. E. (2002). How to Lose Your Political Virginity while Keeping Your Scientific Credibility. BioScience, 52(1), 91-96. doi: 10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0091:HTLYPV]2.0.CO;2

Fanelli, D. (2010). Do Pressures to Publish Increase Scientists’ Bias? An Empirical Support from US States Data. PLoS ONE, 5(4), e10271. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010271

Hayer, C.-A., Kaemingk, M., Breeggemann, J. J., Dembkowski, D., Deslauriers, D., & Rapp, T. (2013). Pressures to Publish: Catalysts for the Loss of Scientific Writing Integrity? Fisheries, 38(8), 352-355. doi: 10.1080/03632415.2013.813845

Ioannidis, J. P. A. (2012). Why Science Is Not Necessarily Self-Correcting. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(6), 645-654. doi: 10.1177/1745691612464056

National Research Council. (2012). Preparing for the Third Decade (Cycle 3) of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.

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