Response from William Colglazier on Science Academies as Political Advocates

September 22nd, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In Bridges last July, I questioned the wisdom of science academies acting as political advocates. I argued that, “There are at least three reasons why political advocacy by science academies should be greeted with caution,” and these were the practical self-interest of scientists, the broader needs of policy making, and reasons of democratic accountability.

William Colglazier, Executive Officer of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Chief Operating Officer of its National Research Council provides a rebuttal in the current issue of Bridges. I appreciate that Mr. Colglazier chose to enage this issue. Here are a few excerpts from his rebuttal and my comments in response:

Colglazier: “In our view, the eleven academies statement was consistent with and supported by careful objective studies done by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) over the past 15 years …”

Response: Of course, my point is that there are any number of policies “consistent with” such “objective studies.” Settling on a subset of policy recommendations involves many considerations that go well beyond science. This is the essence of political advocacy, as science is poorly suited to reaching closure on what actions we should take in any given context, which is ultimately a question of values.

Colglazier: “Mr. Pielke asked about democratic accountability when science academies issue findings and recommendations in statements and reports. We view our reports as bringing the best available insights from science and technology to help inform public policy decisions, not engaging in political advocacy or politics.”

Response: My commentary was obviously not about academy reports generally, but a single statement. I think that it is quite fair to call a statememt calling for political actions by policy makers issued in order to influence the G8 Summit an act of “political advocacy.” There is something very different about this action versus the typicaly science academy study, though Mr. Colgazier directs our attention to the latter with the bulk of his response.

Colglazier: “The eleven science academies that developed the climate change statement for the G8 heads of state meeting at Gleneagles, Scotland, last July will likely join together again to produce additional statements, based on their individual studies, as input to future G8 meetings. One unfortunate aspect of the release of the eleven academies statement on climate change was confusion caused by a press release issued by the Royal Society (RS) of London. That press release went far beyond what the eleven academies statement actually said. The RS press release was not seen in advance by the NAS and did not represent the views of the NAS. So there is still work to be done in developing the right traditions.”

Response: I think that the flap over the Royal Society letter helps to make my main point — ” there are real risks for the scientific enterprise when science academies become political advocates.” And on Colglazier’s recogniztion of work to be done in developing the right traditions, we are in complete agreement.

3 Responses to “Response from William Colglazier on Science Academies as Political Advocates”

  1. Dylan Otto Krider Says:

    I think the concerns over scientists advocating policy does have obvious pitfalls. But when I said previously that it seemed like you were drifting dangerously close to calling for a particular policy, you seemed to say you were a policy guy.

    So, when is it appropriate to call for a particular policy? What’s the difference between saying science shows that reducing CO2 emissions won’t do much to stop hurricanes, and that science shows CO2 is contributing to hurricane intensity (however small), or that climate change might have costs and negatives associated with it? Why is calling to NOT reduce greenhouse gases appropriate, but calling for reductions inappropriate? Is it that as a policy guy you don’t have to limit yourself as a straight researcher would?

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Dylan- Thanks. Actually my point is not so much to draw a line between advocating for particular policies and not doing so, but to recognize the consequences of making such choices. Please read this post for more elaboration of these points:

    On climate change I am clearly advocating a particular framing of the problem. I also think that the IPCC should serve as an honest broker of policy options. I think that these two positions are perfectly compatible. Similarly, I think that the NRC should not engage in political advocacy.

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  5. Eli Rabett Says:

    IMHO the issues are not being framed correctly. More to the point, the issue is being framed in a way that supports a prearrived at conclusion.

    The mission of the several national academies is to provide the best possible advice on scientific and technical issues to their governments.

    Historically and currently most national academies do a really good job of this. Where this is not the case, the academies are constrained by the ideology of their governments, not of the academy members or of the national technical/scientific community. Excellent examples of this are the former Soviet dominated governments and China.

    There are some cases where academies are asked to cooperate in evaluating policies. Usually this is done in collaboration with political entities.

    The problem we face today in the United States has nothing to do with this.

    The National Academies are quite prepared to see their advice ignored, or even “yes but we have more important things to do firsted”. What has set them off is that the current US administration is distorting their advice to the public in order to justify policy choices.

    They are not going to hold still for that, even at the risk of being OTAed.