DO WE THANK FOR ENVIRONMENTAL FACTS?
by Whit Gibbons
July 8, 2007
engaged in scientific research has two responsibilities. The first obligation
is to gather environmental facts. The second is to communicate the information
accurately. Facts and their communication must go together. The ecologist
who does one and not the other may be viewed as irresponsible.
original facts is a difficult task but is also exciting, stimulating,
and is usually the reason someone decides to become an ecologist in the
first place. But research can be costly, and for support of their efforts
most researchers are indebted to one or more patrons, such as the taxpayers
of the country or a state. Even government organizations and universities
that support environmental research programs ultimately answer to the
people who pay the taxes. Hence, expecting a researcher to communicate
the findings of a study is not a suggestion but a requirement.
scientific studies may take many routes, but the preferred first option
is to publish facts and interpretations in scientific journals. This is
especially important because other scientists serve as the judges of whether
a particular study holds to the rigorous standards expected. Later, the
facts can be sifted through and reconsidered for general publication in
newspapers and popular magazines. Communication to the general populace
is as important as publishing in technical journals, because in today's
climate of environmental awareness, people want to know what strides scientists
are making with the tax dollars that pay for ecological research.
agree that the publication of facts in the scientific literature is appropriate,
but some question whether ecologists should ever offer opinions about
environmental policy. Debate about whether ecologists should enter the
environmental policy arena hinges partly on the prevailing culture within
the scientific community. Half a century ago, the attitude among virtually
all research scientists was that scientists reported facts only to each
other, through scientific publications. The public was seldom a target
for explaining scientific findings in depth or detail.
In the 1970s,
I heard the head of a science department at a major university scoff at
a suggestion that the science faculty should try to interpret their research
in a way that would be understandable to the public. Although academic
arrogance still persists in some places, most scientists today are willing
to have their research findings reported to the public. Most environmental
research can be presented in a palatable manner, whether the research
is basic ecological knowledge or of a directly practical nature. If the
research is intrinsically interesting, most people will appreciate it.
a willingness by scientists to report their findings is sometimes not
the issue. Some government officials and industries even go a step further
by attempting to withhold certain environmental facts from the public.
Selective censorship of information by an individual or organization to
cover up environmental problems that could be detrimental to the public
welfare should be viewed as a criminal act. Although recent examples of
censorship exist, such behavior is unconscionable in federal agencies.
The importance of independent reporting by ecologists cannot be overstated,
and any attempt to control the revelation of environmental facts is a
On the other
hand, even though communicating to the public is important, the research
ecologist also has a responsibility to do so cautiously. Are the facts
confirmed or is the ecologist merely expressing an environmental opinion
and using only information that fits a chosen position? Did the ecologist
gather the facts personally or obtain them from a reputable scientific
source? A research ecologist who communicates about environmental issues
without valid documentation is as irresponsible as the organization that
of whether ecologists should take stands and offer opinions about environmental
policies will probably continue to be debated. Of course, not every research
ecologist will be effective when dealing with policy makers because, besides
an inquisitive mind and an ability to write scientific papers, certain
personality traits are necessary. The best scientific investigators are
not always the best communicators to lay people. But the ecologists who
will be listened to most closely will be those who continue to take seriously
the two responsibilities of gathering facts and communicating them accurately.
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