Among the different professional categories, scientists and engineers remain very highly respected by the public, at least compared to politicians, business leaders, the media, and even religious authorities. Part of this is due to the fact that success in the scientific enterprise depends on impartial analysis and independence from political ideology. And yet there are strong connections between science and policy: good policy without good science is difficult; good policy with bad science is impossible. Sure, there is plenty of bad policy made even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, but that is the result of political failures, or, at times, poor scientific communication.
A perennial question facing scientists is when — and how — to participate in public communication and policy debates around issues of social concern. This is not a new question: as long as scientists have seen a connection between their work and major challenges facing society, some have acted on a sense of responsibility to contribute to debates about how science can be harnessed to improve the world. Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked.
As a result, until the past decade or so, when new tools of social media have made more direct communication between scientists and the public easier, scientists have had limited tools to communicate policy-relevant opinions. Congressional and legislative testimony at public hearings offered one avenue for the exchange of information between policymakers and scientists. I’ve personally provided testimony at nearly 40 state and federal hearings on climate, water, and broad environmental policy issues. In recent years, however, the hostility of some policymakers to scientific evidence and information – especially at the federal level — has decreased the number of such hearings and has turned them into events more akin to political theater than educational and informational opportunities.
Another approach was for scientists to work with television producers and film makers to produce high-quality products for the public. Early efforts of pioneers like Carl Sagan paved the way for more recent efforts, but they depended on scientists willing to put themselves forward as communicators and popularizers. Sagan, who wrote popular books and created the award-winning TV show “Cosmos,” was criticized by some colleagues at the time who felt this was not a proper role for scientists, though the more recent success of science communicators such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have shown that this approach can be tremendously effective.
A simpler and more common approach has been for groups of scientists to reach out to policymakers and the public in open letters, expressing concerns about public policy, suggesting priorities for governments, and calling for actions around specific issues. Two early examples include the petition to the President of the United States in July 1945 from 70 scientists at the Manhattan Project calling on Truman to refrain from deploying the newly created atomic bomb, and the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called on world governments to banish war as a way to settle disputes because of the risks of global annihilation from nuclear weapons. That letter, signed by some of the most well-known scientists in modern history, stated:
“… There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.
We invite this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe to the following resolution:
“In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”