The Art of Advocacy

Lobbying for something we want or think we need starts at infancy. Want milk? Babies have a built-in mechanism for letting their needs be known as only a crying infant can. Over the years the landscape shifts, the needs become more complex, and the asks become more sophisticated. (Or not. Temper tantrums are still a tried and true advocacy technique with a variable success rate.)

Parents are (or should be) advocates for their children, preparing them and, when appropriate, promoting them as they move through life. In many societies and communities, parents are actively involved as advocates and enthusiasts for their children’s education, although in the United States that is not always the case, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has pointed out.

Because we’re human, we advocate for ourselves or others, for causes large and small. Yet the word “advocacy” is sometimes treated as if it were a taboo in both science and education—especially if the funding comes from the government and the topic is controversial. Like, for instance, the environment.

Environmental education, for example, can be problematic when it focuses primarily on promoting “green” behavior. Some federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have a mandate to promote practices and attitudes that protect the environment. But other agencies, such as NASA and the National Science Foundation, run into problems if there is any hint of someone promoting an activist agenda.

Likewise, scientists funded by federal dollars should, according to the long-held rules of engagement, avoid jumping on a particular policy or political bandwagon. Their job is just do the science and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

The reasoning is simple and straightforward: ideally science and education should be neutral relative to political and policy agendas to prevent them from being politicized. Scientists shouldn’t weigh in on anything politically charged (because they might upset someone in Congress that controls the funding strings) and educators shouldn’t brainwash students to become environmental activists. According to this logic, scientists and science educators shouldn’t engage in “advocacy”—code for anything potentially political.

Scientists and educators are human beings with their own opinions and, at least in the United States, they have freedom of speech. Yes, there are instances where contractual agreements prevent, say, federal scientists from saying things that might be misconstrued as official policy, or to make sure K12 teachers abide by the curriculum they are expected to teach. And obviously scientific research and science classrooms ideally shouldn’t be tainted by political agendas that distract from conducting or learning the essential science.

In the real world, though, such ideals are challenging, and nowhere is this more acute than in the realm of climate change.The findings of science and how they are taught lead to political and policy ramifications, and this must be understood as part of the overall context.

For years—decades actually—the taboo on advocating for the environment in general and climate change in particular has resulted in these topics not being  taught or taught well. Scientists have all too often been silenced, intimidated or bullied for raising concern about the findings and implications of their research. As a result, the nation—if not the world—is woefully unprepared to address the massive challenge of climate change.

Silencing scientists when they upset the status quo goes back at least to Galileo. Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, which helped inspire the film Jaws, describes the frustrations of a scientist who tries to warn a community about toxic pollution from a tannery. Rachel Carson is still vilified in some quarters for her warnings against the health and environmental effects of synthetic pesticides, such as DDT.

In recent years, the question of whether climate scientists should take a strong stand about the dangers of and possible responses to climate change has been discussed within and outside the science community. Former NASA scientist (and NCSE Advisory Council member) James Hansen has long recommended substantially reducing carbon dioxide emissions, ideally returning somehow to 350 parts per million. He’s advocated for using a carbon tax and dividend approach and ramping up nuclear power in a big way.

Others, such as climate scientist Michael Mann (also an NSCE Advisory Council member), are not so policy and technology specific, but contend that it is vital scientists let their concerns be known. In his recent New York Times Op-Ed “If You See Something, Say Something”, Mann cites the late Stephen Schneider’s assertion that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron, adding:

Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger.

Ken Caldeira, another climate scientist, commenting on Mann’s post in Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth blog, calls for scientists to:

...speak out loudly and in detail about the areas we know something about—climate change and its consequences—but then speak with a greater degree of generality when coming to prescriptions about what exactly we should do.

In other words, it is one thing to say (as a human being who happens to be a scientist) that we need to stop using the sky as a waste dump for our greenhouse gas pollution. It is another thing entirely to wegh [sic] in on specific policy instruments (taxes versus cap-and-trade versus regulations), specific energy technologies, and so on.

It is fine for climate scientists to say (as human beings) that we need policies to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, that to do this we will need energy technologies with near-zero emissions, etc, and that we need to do all of this very soon.

All of this is relevant for the science educator who wants to help students understand the complexities and urgency of climate change and related energy issues, but is worried about being being caught doing “advocacy.”

The Guiding Principle for Climate Literacy, which has been reviewed and endorsed by 13 federal agencies that are part of the US Global Change Research Program, is remarkably and refreshingly explicit: Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.

This “guiding principle for informed climate decisions” is very action oriented, describing how climate science improves policy and decision-making, how reducing human vulnerability to and impacts on climate requires multi-disciplinary, integrated understanding, and how climate change affects national security.

It also examines how greenhouse gas reduction and carbon dioxide sequestration mitigate climate change, strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emission (energy conservation, renewable energies, change in energy use), as well as strategies for humans adapting to climate change. Finally it emphasizes that actions taken by different levels of society can mitigate climate change and increase preparedness for current and future generations.

Does this amount to advocacy? I think not, so long as no specific policy or political agenda is implied. In science education we do advocate for good, current science, for mastering essential principles and fundamental concepts, for systems thinking, and, of course, critical thinking. Most important, we are advocates for informed decision-making and actions based on the evidence and its implications.

Yes, we advocate teaching these topics throughout the grade levels, ideally infusing climate and energy topics throughout the curriculum—not only in the physical, life, and Earth sciences, but also in the mathematics, language arts, social studies, civics and the arts.

Naturally, some well meaning educators go overboard, foisting their opinions on students. Academic freedom in higher education gives teachers more free rein to profess their views to students. But in the K12 realm, where delivering the required curriculum is challenging enough, this can become an issue. As Minda Berbeco wrote in her post "Action in Climate Education: A Step Too Far?":

To be clear, students absolutely must learn the science, understand the causes, and know the potential solutions. How they act on that knowledge, though, is a personal decision that, for better or worse, cannot be dictated by an educator. The teacher’s role is to educate, not to proselytize.


Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.

We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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