Excellent article from Maven’s Notebook.
Normative science’ has a corrosive effect on the entire scientific enterprise, says Dr. Robert Lackey
These days, scientists in environmental science, natural resources, ecology, conservation biology, water resource management, and similar disciplines are often not trusted by the public and decision-makers to present policy-neutral science. One reason is that scientists advocating personal or organizational positions on ecological and environmental policy issues has become widely tolerated as acceptable professional behavior and is even encouraged by a segment of the scientific community, and as a result, the scientific enterprise is collectively slipping into a morass that risks marginalizing the contribution of science to public policy, says Dr. Robert Lackey.
Public confidence that scientific information is technically accurate, policy relevant, and politically unbiased is central to informed resolution of policy and regulatory issues that are often contentious, divisive, and litigious. Dr. Lackey warns that scientists should watch for the often subtle creep of normative science (i.e., information that appears to be policy neutral, but contains an embedded preference for a particular policy or class of policies). Failing to do so risks marginalizing the essential role that science and scientists ought to play in informing decisions on important public policy questions, he maintains.
Dr. Robert Lackey is professor of fisheries science at Oregon State University. In 2008 he retired after 27 years with the Environmental Protection Agency’s national research laboratory in Corvallis where he served as Deputy Director and Associate Director for Science, among other senior science and leadership jobs. His professional assignments involved diverse aspects of natural resource management, but mostly he has operated at the interface between science and policy. In this webinar presented to the American Water Resources Association in May of 2016, he talked about use and misuse of science in water resource policy and management.
Here’s what he had to say.
Dr. Bob Lackey began by discussing his background. “The first phase of my career started pretty much in science research,” he said. “I found this to be comfortable, it was understandable, and the rules were clear cut: you did your research, and perhaps you published peer reviewed literature, and things were pretty good. Not a lot of controversy; I certainly had to hustle for money and so forth, but generally speaking, it was fairly straightforward.”
As his career grew, he became more involved at interface with policy people, and so the second phase of his career was essentially interacting and being a science interface with policy makers, policy analysts, political people, and the people who make decisions. “To me as a hard core scientist, this was a scary world, but it was fascinating,” he said. “I learned an awful lot, and I did that for quite a few years and found it to be quite enjoyable, but frustrating in many areas and in many situations. The third phase of my career was going back to academia which is where I’m at now at Oregon State University, and this afforded a time to kind of analyze and reflect. So when I was asked to present some comments, my question essentially was, what about insights that I learned in my career that might be useful to other people about the use and abuse of science, and so that’s what you’re going to hear today.”
“In my view, in the water resource management, natural resource management, and similar kinds of fields is that the misuse of science has become increasingly common,” he said. “Over my career, I’ve seen it increase in misuse, and I think this has undermined the confidence that people have – the public, the decisionmakers and the policymakers – in the entire scientific enterprise, so this is my take home message. The rest of my comments are essentially going to be a roadmap to how I got to this conclusion.”