by Whit Gibbons

July 8, 2007

An ecologist 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.

Gathering 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.

Communicating 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.

All scientists 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.

Unfortunately, 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 dangerous precedent.

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 withholds information.

The issue 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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