Scientists and Advocacy

by Lorna Salzman

A bit of history may add to the recent debate in Conservation Biology on scientific advocacy. As a representative for a leading national environmental advocacy group through the seventies and into the mid-eighties, I was deeply involved in the anti-nuclear power movement through my organization (Friends of the Earth) and through regional and grassroots groups in the New York area. The nuclear industry, utilities, and government regulators depended on the credentials and expertise of nuclear physicists from academia. These scientists staunchly defended as safe and necessary the power source upon which their livelihood and status depended, and their advocacy did not notably affect their reputations adversely, at least within academic circles.

I regularly debated pronuclear scientists, engineers, and utility executives on the issue. What disturbed me most was not that nuclear physicists were defending nuclear power but rather that they allowed the perversion of truth and the scientific method by citing "proof" of their claims in a most selective manner. They routinely ignored or tried to discredit independent and impartial studies if they cast nuclear power in a bad light, and they supported, without minimal scientific scrutiny, those studies that cast it in a good light. Their behavior, not their advocacy, sullied their public reputations.

As an example, Brookhaven National Laboratories and the Atomic Energy Commission suppressed for many years (until a Ralph Nader lawsuit forced it into the open) the results of the WASH-740 study that spelled out the full consequences of a nuclear accident. The point is that scientists do not forfeit their rights to participate in public debate, but they most certainly forfeit their right to be heard when they allow personal politics to suppress the problems created by their work.

In the late 1970s Friends of the Earth filed lawsuits against numerous Federal agencies for noncompliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, specifically the National Institute of Health's failure to do a risk assessment study before promulgating DNA research guidelines. Several biologists tried to get Friends of the Earth to drop its lawsuit.

Biological scientists are entitled— and are desperately needed—to illuminate the most critical ecological issues of our day, particularly the global biodiversity crisis. Were they to paint only the rosy picture (something Gregg Easterbrook, an editor at Atlantic Monthly, is attempting to do in his new book, "A Moment on the Earth"), they would be doing citizens a grave disservice. (Apparently Easterbrook thinks biological scientists should emulate certain nuclear physicists and refrain from airing the negative aspects of environmental degradation.)

However, scientists are still acting as if scientific evidence is all that is needed to persuade policymakers. This may have been the case in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we now have a very different breed of anti-environmentalists. This breed concedes that we have a problem, a crisis, and that we are going to lose wetlands, forests, species. However, they argue that these losses are really much less important than economic benefits, private property rights, and industrial production. In other words, they admit they don't care about the environmental crises or ultimate impact and that immediate human needs should always be considered before the long-term consequences.

Science is not going to be the deciding factor, or even a major player in the debate but rather the values, opinions, and politics of the players. Scientists will increasingly find that the issues will not be argued on their merits, and that the introduction of scientific evidence will simply be ignored.

Scientists, ask yourselves questions such as: Are we going to save wetlands or let farmers wreck them? Are we going to save grasslands or turn them over to ranchers? The debate will not revolve around the reasons we need wetlands or grasslands; it will revolve around political clout. Scientists need to get out of the lab and into the streets, figuratively and perhaps literally, to challenge just about every way that business and politics are conducted in this country. They need to get involved in political campaigns and the legislative process. They need to speak out, write, lobby, agitate, and advertise— as citizens, not scientists. And they need to do so not just because natural systems and species are being destroyed but because the political institutions, processes, laws, statutes, and regulatory mechanisms that brought us so much progress in the past are being deliberately dismantled, without regard for scientific truth.

It was the suppression of truth, the manipulation and subversion of the democratic process, the corruption of the licensing process, and deliberate economic distortion (the tens of billions of dollars in subsidies, for example) that enabled nuclear power to flourish. Considering that these abuses of the regulatory process occurred in an atmosphere far friendlier to the environment, we may be faced with far more aggressive and hostile measures that will undermine what is left of this process today.

Unfortunately, the failure of the large, Washington-based environmental groups to develop a firm environmental constituency means that citizens at the grassroots will have to pick up the ball. This is a good thing because the reclamation of democracy and the restoration of accountability should not be left to those in Washington. They are civic responsibilities of the first order. I fervently hope that scientists will join in this effort, as quickly and unreservedly as possible.

Source: Conservation Biology, Volume 9, No. 4, August 1995.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.