[Coral-List] Science and advocacy

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Wed Jul 18 23:00:18 EDT 2012

*    *For anyone interested in the advocacy question, I recommend reading
the articles that John Bruno pointed to on science and advocacy, in
addition to the one pointed to by Chris Hawkins.  There are a lot of
opinions on the science and advocacy issue, as I found with a simple Google
Scholar search on the words "Science" and "Advocacy."  In fact, the NY
Times article by Bradbury about coral reefs being doomed, and the various
comments on it such as the Andy Revkin article and Randy Olson's response
John Bruno pointed to and others including my own response, are also very
much examples of the debate about science advocacy.
    To summarize, some think that scientists must stick to their science
because if they start advocating for things, soon people will think their
science is biased because of what they are advocating, and they will loose
credibility.  Others think that the emergency on coral reefs is dire, and
scientists are standing by not doing anything or even talking like there is
no problem.  Those are opposite ends of the spectrum, but there are a lot
of positions in between as well.
    I thinking that there is a problem when a scientist lets their opinions
about what policies should be color their scientific work or their
interpretations of scientific facts.  We need to work as hard as possible
to keep the science itself undistorted by external biases.
    On the other hand, the world has a multitude of very serious problems,
and much of our science is highly relevant to some of the problems.  There
are tons of scientific findings, anyone who knows that the program for ICRS
had 1500 presentations and posters and the program book was 290 pages long,
doesn't have to be reminded of that.  Not all of the science can be
reviewed by every policy maker, nor are they aware of much of it.  Somehow
the most important relevant findings of the science need to get out to the
public and to the policy makers.  With few exceptions, if a person doesn't
work to get the story out, it will never get out no matter how important it
is.  Scientists not only have a right to make their findings public (with
some exceptions in the military and business and a very few in government),
but a duty to do so.  A great deal of money is spent on producing the
science, and society has a right to know the results, by and large.  So
just doing the science, publishing the paper, and staying quiet isn't
enough.  That's especially true if you love reefs and are helplessly
watching them go down the tubes, as many of us are.
    Further, as the NY Times and related pieces have reminded us, the
scientific evidence shows we are in a terrible situation with our reefs,
they are in steep decline in many if not most places.  Something needs to
be done.  Scientists as citizens, have as much right as any other citizen
to speak out on important issues, and they may have more knowledge of the
problems than the average person on the street.  Society needs them to
speak out.  The purpose of many government programs involving reefs and of
most NGOs involved with reefs is to try to stem their steep slide downhill,
and as one of the people funded by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation
Program, I note that the program is not entitled "Coral Reefs, Do Research
and Let Reefs Die" program.  Trying to conserve reefs is a fundamental part
of my job.  Doing science and interpreting science are also important parts
of my job, I think.  I don't think that is unusual.
    I think we need to play the science as straight as we can.  If a
particular reef is not going down the tubes, I think we do best not to
deny, cover up, or ignore that fact.  Put in the context that most reefs
are going down the tubes, the exceptions do not disprove the rule.  I have
argued that sea level rises will benefit reef flat corals (though only
temporarily) even though sea level rise is one of a host of effects of CO2
emissions, almost all the rest of which are very damaging.  But I don't
think we should let the overall opinion that CO2 emissions are causing huge
damages, get in our way of reporting the facts that sea level rise should
benefit reef flat corals for a short period.  Mind you, it is one of the
less or even least important effects of CO2, and that perspective must not
be lost as well.  And of course the most important findings, that most
reefs are going down the tubes, and CO2 is doing great damage, must be at
the center of attention, as they are.
     I think that scientists have a duty to speak out about the damaging
effects people are having on coral reefs, and what science tells us about
what works and doesn't work to fix those problems (I tried to do that in my
paper on challenges to managing reef fisheries).  How else are the public
and policy makers going to know?  Should we leave it to them to make up
things in a vacuum of ignorance?  I think not.  On the other hand, we need
to work hard to keep the scientific facts straight and minimize how much
our views color them.
     One way to do this is to try to keep the science and the advocacy
separate.  Report the science straight, don't pick and choose facts, give
them the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Then, as a separate thing, try to
make sure that people are aware of the most important problems and the
evidence about what works to solve the problems, and push policy makers and
the public to take action to fix the problems.  That's where that Consensus
Statement comes in.
    That said, we are all humans, scientists and non-scientists alike, and
it is simply not possible for people to not have opinions and views.  That
is part of how the brain works, trying to make sense of the world.  The
discussion John Bruno pointed to about whether reefs are doomed that was on
coral-list in 2001 is a marvelous example of expert scientists debating the
issues.  There were as many views as scientists, each engaging in spirited
debate over how to interpret the situation, citing evidence right and
left.  Very different views, vigorous debate, each scientist advocating
their own views.  Yet it wasn't about advocating public policy, though
there were implications of the science for policy.  Such debates are a good
thing, but illustrate that you can be an excellent scientist and debate
vigorously too, and few scientists at the expert level are devoid of
     One last tidbit, and that is it appears to me that people sometimes
accuse those with views different from their own of advocating, implying
that they themselves aren't advocating, when in fact they themselves are
just as vociferous in advocating for their own views.
      Cheers,  Doug

On Thu, Jul 12, 2012 at 3:20 AM, Eugene Shinn <eshinn at marine.usf.edu> wrote:

> Thank you Christopher Hawkins. We share the same concerns. I have
> stood by and watched as the coral-list was taken over by advocacy
> groups. Gene
> --

> No Rocks, No Water, No Ecosystem (EAS)
> ------------------------------------ -----------------------------------
> E. A. Shinn, Courtesy Professor
> University of South Florida
> College of Marine Science Room 221A
> 140 Seventh Avenue South
> St. Petersburg, FL 33701
> <eshinn at marine.usf.edu>
> Tel 727 553-1158----------------------------------
> -----------------------------------
> _______________________________________________
> Coral-List mailing list
> Coral-List at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
> http://coral.aoml.noaa.gov/mailman/listinfo/coral-list

*From:* Christopher Hawkins <chwkins at yahoo.com>
*To:* "coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov" <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>;
Pedro H. Rodríguez <phernanrod at yahoo.com>
*Sent:* Tuesday, July 10, 2012 8:40 AM
*Subject:* Re: [Coral-List] Science and advocacy


I find the article by Bob Lackey entitled "Science, Scientists, and Policy
Advocacy" (Conservation Biology Volume 21, No. 1, 12–17) to be a good read
on this topic.

The first paragraph of the Introduction:

"I am concerned that we scientists in conservation biology, ecology,
natural resources, environmental science, and similar disciplines are
collectively slipping into a morass that risks marginalizing the
contribution of science to public policy. Advocating personal positions on
ecological policy issues has become widely tolerated as acceptable
professional behavior and is even encouraged by a substantial fraction of
the scientific community (Marris 2006; Scott et al. 2007). Scientists are
uniquely qualified to participate in public policy deliberations and they
should, but advocating for their policy preferences is not appropriate."


A few months ago I "republished" a series of science and advocacy
 essays and debates;


John Bruno

Bruno, John jbruno at unc.edu
Jul 16 (2 days ago)

 to coral-list
See the good and growing discussion that Andy Revkin has facilitated in
response to Roger Bradbury's NYT "A world without coral reefs" op-ed here:

Cheers, JB

What do you know, looks like we've been here before:
 "Are Reefs Doomed? A Coral-List Server Discussion Thread"

Also see Randy'Olson's response: http://thebenshi.com/?p=3827


Fenner, D.  2012.  Reef flat growth: comment on “Rising sea level may cause
decline of fringing coral reefs.”

  EOS 93 (23): 218.

Dept. Marine & Wildlife Resources, American Samoan Government
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

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