Ken Caldeira on scientists in the policy arena

"[As] scientists, we have ability and the right, if not the obligation, to speak as concerned and informed citizens. But it is useful to keep those roles separate. We have no particular priestly role where we have greater weight than anyone else…"

- Ken Caldeira, quoted in Nature

In his regular science policy column, David Goldston, who is a visiting lecturer at Harvard's Center for Environmental Research, likens scientific issues infiltrating the awareness of the US Congress to navigating a semi-permeable membrane: you need the right temperature, pressure and concentration. As case in point, he discusses the case of the saturation of the world's oceans by carbon dioxide. Concerned scientists, such as Caldeira, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford, didn't really make any headway getting the government interested in this problem until several things happened.

First, they came up with a sexier name for the problem, namely "acidification", which "was easy to comprehend, sounded alarming, and drove home the idea that carbon dioxide was a pollutant". Second, the press took an interest, thanks mostly to a UK Royal Society report that inspired pieces in Scientific American and The New Yorker. Third, a mediating organization COMPASS (The Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea) helped to arrange a meeting between scientists and some members of Congress – but not before briefing the researchers thoroughly on how to make their pitch. Jargon in particular had to be ferreted out ruthlessly. Fourth, according to Goldston, programs like the Sea Grant Fellowship, which places young scientists as interns on Capitol Hill, played a key role in coaxing the issue further onto the agenda. The story isn't over yet, but so far signs are promising that at least some of Congress is aware of the acidification issue.

Both Goldston and Caldeira agree that that there are at least two crucial elements in scientists maintaining their credibility throughout this infiltration process: first, being open about which scientific aspects actually are uncertain, and second, clearly separating scientific fact from personal opinion when it comes to solutions. The latter aspect is something that has to be debated far more widely than just within the scientific community, and scientists' opinions should hold no more weight in this arena than anyone else's.

You can read the entire piece with a subscription to Nature.