Should Researchers Double as Policy Activists?

The UK, from whence this News Blog emanates, is preparing for a general election – one that is exercising psephologists because, like other European countries, the UK is experiencing a fracturing of the vote, with smaller parties encroaching on “traditional” major parties. This News Blog will stand on the sidelines. We cannot be silent on how to reach objectives, of course, and will continue to report on the relevant evidence. However, the political implications will not be discussed. This is not because the CLAHRC WM Director is apolitical. On the contrary, he is a member of a political party for which he has canvassed in years gone by. Instead, the CLARHC WM Director’s ordinance is based on the ideas that firstly, politics should be kept out of the day job (unless politics is the day job), and secondly, it is quite possible to separate the political persona from the work persona, as the Director had to do in his civil service days.

But, what about policy rather than politics? Here we deal with rather more specific issues: caps on carbon emissions, badger culling, promoting contraception in African countries. What should scientists do in these cases? Should they be dispassionate collectors of evidence, or should they double as both evidence collectors and activists for the relevant causes? Climate change scientists could lobby for more stringent controls on emissions; those who show that badger culling has minimised effects on TB control [1] could join protests; and those who find that lack of contraception is the cause of unwanted pregnancy could agitate against puritanical governments, such as that in Uganda.

The issue of scientists as “activists” was discussed at the ‘Global Symposium on Health Systems Research’ conference, Cape Town, in October 2014. The majority – in fact all – who commented supported the idea of scientists as activists. But there was little critical reflection on the potential dangers of activism and how they might be avoided. The CLAHRC WM Director is circumspect when it comes to this idea of scientist activism.

First, scientists have no particular expertise when it comes to the values on which policy may turn. Nobel prize winners sometimes succumb to the temptation to appoint themselves as an oracle, and soon become a public nuisance, as pointed out by Paul Nurse, himself a laureate. Scientific evidence is about how to reach an objective, but which objectives to pursue – that is a question of preferences/values which lie in the realm of philosophy or religion rather than science. Churchill seems to have spotted this distinction when he said “scientists should be on tap, but not on top.”[2]

Second, a reason for scientist activism is the passion scientists have for the cause. But this is precisely where the danger lies. The CLAHRC WM Director is no climate change denier, but he is worried by the frequent gerrymandering of scientific results in this field, where some seem to think the end justifies the means. Activism has the power to corrupt.[3]

There is a counter-argument to the Director’s detached position. This argument holds that scientific results are inevitably socially constructed, and so, rather than pretend that science is neutral/objective, it is better to declare one’s allegiance and let the reader judge. This is not the place for a comprehensive demolition of this kind of constructivist argument – the writer is an unreformed child of the Enlightenment, holding that we should strive to be objective in the collection and analysis of evidence, and hence that we should adhere to scientific rules whose purpose is the avoidance of error.

The CLAHRC WM Director does not go so far as to say that a scientist should not express an opinion. The moral insights of scientists may be no better than those of the population as a whole, but there is no reason to think they are any worse. The crucial point for scientists is to separate their lives as dispassionate empiricists from their lives as advocates. They should be crystal clear, both in their own minds and in their pronouncements, when they have toggled from scientist to citizen advocate. And, of course, there are times when a decision really does turn only on the science – where values don’t enter the equation because nearly everyone has the same preferences. So, in the case of Thabo Mbeki’s failure to accept that HIV is the cause of AIDS, it was quite right for Jimmy Volmink, and other courageous South African scientists, to “speak truth unto power.”

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director


  1. Jenkins HE, Woodroffe R, Donnelly CA. The Duration of the Effects of Repeated Widespread Badger Culling on Cattle Tuberculosis Following the Cessation of Culling. PLoS ONE. 2010. 5(2): e9090.
  2. Quoted in: Churchill RS. Twenty-One Years. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1965. p.127.
  3. Lomborg B. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001.

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