It’s Time to Clarify the role of AAAS in Policy and Politics

October 15th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is a professional society with a mission, just like its name implies, to “To Advance Science and Innovation Throughout the World for the Benefit of All People.” (Note: I am a member of AAAS and serve on a minor committee.)

Of late I have been wondering about the role of the AAAS in matters of policy and politics that go beyond funding for science. While we should expect AAAS to be a vigorous advocate for increased support for science, I have recently wondered about what AAAS’ sees its role as in political controversies that involve science, e.g., on issues like stem cells, global climate change, cloning, etc.

Some insight on this issue can be found in a 1989 AAAS doicument titled AAAS Policy, Guidelines, and Procedures for Communications with Congress. This document observes,

“The AAAS does not engage in political activities,” and “The AAAS does not, as a general policy, engage in direct or grass roots lobbying… Direct lobbying generally is any attempt to influence any legislation through communication with any member or employee of a legislative body (both Congress and state and local legislative bodies). Grass roots lobbying generally is any attempt to influence any legislation through any attempt to affect the opinions of the general public.”

Of course, all similarly incorporated non-profits (i.e., 501 (c) (3)) are required to follow similar rules about advocacy. Such rules are in general pretty easy to get around because they focus on limiting advocacy for specific candidates and legislative proposals (see, e.g., this description).

The AAAS observes, “… activities related to the preparation and distribution of nonpartisan analysis, study or research are not lobbying activities. Such work may even advocate a particular position but it must also contain a sufficiently full and fair treatment of the pertinent facts to enable the formation of an independent opinion.” It further notes, “Generally, the AAAS should seek to express concerns, educate about consequences, and explore options rather than advocating specific legislative actions. However, in any communication that advocates a position — other than in a requested communication — close attention must be given to the requirements for a full and fair treatment of the issue, as discussed earlier.”

So with this background, consider the following press releases from AAAS in 2004:

AAAS Joins Call Against Proposed United Nations Ban on Therapeutic Cloning.

United Nations Environment Programme and AAAS Agree to Partner on Environmental Goals

AAAS signs letter urging President Bush to expand access to embryonic stem cells

At a meeting organized by AAAS and its journal, Science … Climate experts urge immediate action to offset impact of global warming”

Don’t Leave Georgia’s Children Behind

Each of these reflects a clear advocacy position on a controversial subject. I am not suggesting that AAAS is running afoul of nonprofit rules and regulations. What I am suggesting is that the positions taken by AAAS do not appear to me to be well-grounded in the AAAS’s own guidelines for engaging in policy analysis or advocacy.

For example, I have previously observed that the AAAS June forum on climate change was anything but a “full and fair” treatment of climate policy issues (not because it didn’t reflect scientific consensus, but because it ignored climate policy.) It was a clear effort to support a particular political perspective on climate change through the selective presentation of information.

I’ll admit that I do not have a specific proposal in mind for how the AAAS ought to confront issues of policy and politics. But it seems to me that the AAAS existing guideline to “to express concerns, educate about consequences, and explore options rather than advocating specific legislative actions” is a good place to start. At the same time it does not appear to me that the AAAS has always met this standard, particularly recently. Of course, the standard is a quite inscrutable and imprecise.

Given the attention currently being devoted to the politicization of science, perhaps it is time for the AAAS to revisit its own guidelines and procedures for engaging issues of politics and policy in a way that provides clear leadership for the scientific community. Otherwise, the AAAS leaves itself wide open for criticism of its advocacy efforts.

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