A New Breed of Scientist-Advocate Emerges

Role Model for Ecology's Generation X

A Reluctant Warrior

Citizen-Scientist Guru

At Home on the Range

Anger wells up whenever Les Watling recalls the cruise that helped transform the reclusive scientist into a vocal champion of biodiversity. It was August 1993, and Watling was revisiting a spot in the Gulf of Maine where, a few years earlier, he had stumbled across one of the richest assemblages of life he'd ever seen in those frigid waters. Carpeting the boulder-strewn sea floor were unusual sponges nearly 30 centimeters tall--veritable cacti--including several species he didn't know. "This place was just amazing," he says.

While some leading ecologists are urging their colleagues to inject their findings--and themselves--into policy debates, others warn that activism will erode the discipline's credibility

Hoping to learn more about this underwater Eden, Watling, who studies crustaceans, took a Danish sponge expert to the spot, Jeffrey's Bank. Shining a searchlight on the ocean bottom, researchers spent two increasingly desperate hours in a submersible looking at mostly barren rock and silt. The sponges were gone. Although Watling was no expert on the fishing industry, the University of Maine, Orono, professor had a hunch that trawlers scraping the ocean floor with their heavy nets had mowed down the sponge garden. His suspicions grew when he later learned that a white hake fishery had begun operating in the waters around Jeffrey's Bank, using new "rock hopper" gear--a set of large balls or rollers that ride the ocean floor, dragging nets to scoop up hake and other bottom-dwellers. "I was just appalled," he says.

Soon after that experience, Watling made a fateful decision, one he realized could diminish his standing among his peers and even jeopardize his career: He picked up a slingshot and headed after Goliath. He began publishing papers on trawling's harmful effects and called for a ban on the practice, a message he thumped in media tours sponsored by the American Oceans Campaign and SeaWeb, nonprofits that raise awareness of marine conservation issues. Up to that point in his 20-year career, Watling says, "I was a classic scientist. I'd sit in my office, work on my grant proposals, write my papers, take my professional accolades, try not to stick my head out the door too far." Those halcyon days were over: Watling had become an advocate.

He's also at the vanguard of a movement that's causing some soul-searching among ecologists. Across the country, ecologists are stepping up efforts to speak out about the policy implications of their findings. Spurred by leading figures in their field, they are writing commentaries, signing letters, speaking to Congress, even sharing the bully pulpit with environmental groups. The Ecological Society of America (ESA) has launched a fellowship program to train experienced environmental scientists in the delicate art of conveying a bottom line to the media and to policy-makers. Meanwhile, conservation biologists, whose subdiscipline was conceived explicitly to generate the science for protecting habitats and species, are embarking on a major new push to reach out to managers and make their voices heard (see p. 1192). To many ecologists, locking themselves away in the ivory tower is now unconscionable. Columbia University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who has given his opinion on such matters as the multibillion-dollar plan to restore Florida's Everglades (a flawed effort, in his view), sums up what many of his colleagues feel: "I have a moral responsibility as a citizen to make people aware of what the science means."

But the drive to make advocacy an accepted practice in ecology has provoked a backlash. Some ecologists worry that to the public, environmental scientists are becoming indistinguishable from environmental activists. "If we promote our opinions as though they are the truth, people won't listen to the science as carefully because they'll think we have an agenda," says Ingrid Burke of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She and others fret that ecologists will handicap their ability to do empirical research if they go beyond current science by making value judgments--for example, by saying that nonnative plant species or global warming are categorically bad, or that economic growth should be curtailed to save species from extinction. Such values "can really affect the way you design a study," says John Wiens of Colorado State, who warns against "creeping advocacy syndrome."

Ecologists are discussing these issues among themselves: The ESA devoted a whole session to scientific objectivity, values, and advocacy at its annual meeting last August. With debate heating up, Science polled more than two dozen ecologists to see just how far they think they should go in getting a message out to the public. Many ecologists expressed deep reservations about crossing the blurry line that separates scientific meaning from social values. As Stanford University ecologist Pamela Matson explains it, "a lot of ecologists walk a really fine line between advocacy for science and advocacy for a cause." Others argue that ecologists often deal with issues, such as climate change, that require policies to be adopted before the science is certain--and if they don't weigh in heavily in political debates to counteract the arguments of those with a vested interest in delaying action, it could be too late. There are no easy answers, but Science offers examples of how advocacy can color a scientific issue, and how three individuals--Stephen Schneider (p. 1189), Gene Likens (p. 1190), and Gretchen Daily (p. 1191)--have become comfortable with the level of advocacy they've pursued.

Birth of a movement

Watling is not the first scientist to parachute down from the ivory tower in the hope of making a difference to society. During World War II, many U.S. physicists donned a political mantle to argue for development of the atomic bomb. And in the decades after the war, many of the same physicists played leading roles in the policy debates over arms control and the Strategic Defense Initiative. But activism has more recently been thrust upon or embraced by ecologists, whose studies of the natural world have revealed worrisome, if sometimes uncertain, trends that point toward a need for political action.

Tensions over advocacy came to a boil in 1951, when ESA members who felt that urgent measures were needed to protect habitats branched off from their more circumspect colleagues to form The Nature Conservancy. Several years later the modern environmental movement was born, when biologist Rachel Carson sounded the alarm on how DDT and other pesticides were harming wildlife. Her 1962 book Silent Spring spurred scientists to form the activist group, the Environmental Defense Fund (now called Environmental Defense). The ranks of scientist-activists swelled in the 1980s, when environmental interests often took a back seat to business interests. Back then, says Environmental Defense senior scientist David Wilcove, "I felt a social responsibility to get out there and try to make a difference." As an environmentalist with a doctorate, Wilcove says, he feels he's had "a much greater impact" than he would have without that credential on issues such as protecting old-growth forest in the Northwest and revamping the Endangered Species Act.

He and many others have paid a price for getting involved. Some scientists question the objectivity of papers published by scientist-advocates like Wilcove. After Silent Spring came out, Rachel Carson spent the last months of her life fending off a vicious backlash from pesticide manufacturers, who labeled her a "fanatic." More recently, ecologist Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, Seattle (UW), received anonymous death threats during the early 1990s for affirming the spotted owl's dependence on old-growth forest habitat.

Still, many ecologists say their colleagues aren't aggressive enough in injecting their findings into policy debates. To remedy this perceived shortcoming, in 1983 the ESA, after much soul-searching, established a beachhead in Washington, D.C., opening an office to convey its expertise to policy-makers. Then 9 years later it launched the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative, which aims to educate the public and federal agencies on issues ranging from political hot potatoes like endangered species to unsexy topics like the surfeit of nitrogen from burning fossil fuels. Continuing this trend, the ESA in 1998 helped launch the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program to teach midcareer ecologists how to get their message across in the media.

The new spirit of activism was summed up in a letter to Science signed by 20 prominent ecologists, including Paul Ehrlich and Matson of Stanford and Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University in Corvallis ( Science, 30 October 1998, p. 879). It isn't enough for a scientist to merely report findings, they wrote. Ecologists should contribute to "stemming the tide of environmental degradation and the associated losses of biodiversity and its ecological services." "[M]uch of what we study," they continued, "is fast disappearing. ... Ecologists have a responsibility to humanity, one that we are not yet discharging adequately."

If the letter was meant to rouse the community, it worked. Although some ecologists applauded the statement, others cried foul. "I thought that was just a travesty," says one. "The public won't know when to trust us." As for the letter's tone, wrote UW marine biologist Warren Wooster in a letter to Science, "When an ecologist makes an apocalyptic statement about the death of one or another ecosystem, he trades his credibility for his passion as an advocate." Wooster and others say they don't disagree with the need to publicize results. The problems come when scientists advocate, be it calmly or shrilly, a course of action.

The danger they perceive is that outspoken advocacy may make it hard to retreat from, or to qualify, positions once new findings come in. For instance, some scientists argue that fires and other human activities may be key to the vitality of certain swaths of land in the Amazon basin ( Science, 4 February, p. 786)--a conclusion that, if true, would be hard to stomach for those who view humans as ecological transgressors. "It's just assumed biodiversity is good," and such things as grazing and invasive species are bad, says Ed Rykiel of Washington State University, Richland, who organized the symposium on advocacy at the ESA's annual meeting. However, he says, "all ecological systems are dynamic. Is that good or bad?"

Albatross or badge of honor?

Forecasting environmental disasters often requires taking a value-laden leap of faith beyond the present state of knowledge. "Sometimes we extrapolate from our data and we don't know if that [scenario] will be true under new conditions," says Jim MacMahon of Utah State University in Logan. And when the data don't track, the predictions can go belly up. Many point to dire warnings in the 1970s by Ehrlich and others of runaway population growth--a scenario that didn't play out as predicted. It happened again in the late 1980s, when drought in the U.S. Midwest was linked to global warming. "Every instance of advocacy [that] espouses something beyond what's known and is presented as science destroys the credibility of real science," says David Tilman of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who argues that environmental and industry groups are more often to blame than academics.

One argument in favor of saving species is a recent flash point. A common theme in ecology, and one picked up by environmentalists, is that a swath of land bursting with a wide array of species is healthier and more productive than an ecosystem with just a few species. Some studies of grasslands have shown just that, but others have not. "There needs to be a lot more careful research done ... about what biodiversity does in systems," says Steward Pickett of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

Some ecologists also argue that when scientists become wedded to a position, they may--perhaps unconsciously--ignore findings that don't square with their values. For instance, Bill Parton of Colorado State argues that environmentalists and even some of his colleagues pay short shrift to findings suggesting that carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by human activity will boost crop yields in some areas, particularly arid regions, perhaps outweighing the negative effects of hotter temperatures for that region. If scientists put forward what should be a far more mixed message, he says, they might appear more honest--and less like advocates--than they do now. Such a change in tone might make Republicans in Congress less skeptical of ratifying the Kyoto climate treaty. "If you present a balanced approach, people might not confuse you with environmentalists," Parton says.

Wiens of Colorado State argues that some scientists let their values erode their objectivity in assessing the ecological damage wrought when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989. "Everybody's preconception was that this was bad and it was going to be an environmental disaster," says Wiens, who received funding from Exxon to study seabird recovery. That, he says, was exactly what the early research tended to find--until better designed studies found that, while hit hard initially, many birds and other species bounced back fairly quickly ( Science, 9 April 1999, p. 247).

"When scientists become activists without hard evidence to back [their positions] up, they run the risk of being decloaked. People find out the emperor has no clothes," says Wiens. That undermines "the credibility of scientists as a whole." The result, claims Fred Wagner of Utah State, is that "ecologists have an image problem." The public, he says, has come to view him and his colleagues as "environmental advocates with college degrees."

It can be hard for environmental scientists to hold back until uncertainties are resolved, however, when their results point to a catastrophe in the offing. Ozone depletion is a classic case. After publishing a paper in 1974 hypothesizing that chlorofluorocarbons from aerosol cans and refrigerators were destroying Earth's protective ozone layer, atmospheric chemists F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina argued vehemently that releases should be slashed. This was years before the Antarctic ozone hole appeared. But the fact that ozone depletion was a "global effect" and that any action would take many years to kick in made it more urgent, says Rowland, of the University of California, Irvine: "I thought that the possible consequences were severe enough that one should not sit back and watch this for a while to see what happens."

Many other ecologists agree that advocacy stems directly from their science. "The idea that we can draw a line down the center of ourselves and say, 'This is purely our science and this side is purely our values' is ridiculous," says Alison Power of Cornell University, who's spoken out on the ecological risks of genetically modified plants. She and others point to scientist-activists who have maintained solid reputations as researchers, such as Stanford's Ehrlich, a National Academy of Sciences member. Pimm says there's no harm in speaking out--even being wrong--because science has a safety net, peer review, that corrects exaggerations. "The reality is, there is an enormous number of checks and balances," he says: "the very rigorous, brutal selection of ideas."

How to take a stand

Although many ecologists are willing to wade into this moral and political quagmire, they say they would feel more comfortable if their savvier colleagues laid down some ground rules. For instance, a conservative approach might be to limit oneself to presenting data and discussing uncertainties, without venturing an opinion on policy actions. "It's advocacy for science, in a way," says Stanford's Matson.

ESA leaders insist that they firmly toe this line. For example, an ESA panel last year completed a joint report with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, on the potential effects of climate change in California, but let the union take the results to Capitol Hill. Others feel more comfortable singing in a choir--on National Academy of Sciences panels, for instance.

For those willing to go a step further and offer their scientific take on policy, one could offer a range of alternatives--for example, the odds that a salmon population will be wiped out if a dam is or is not built. "Scientists should be providing information rather than advocating any particular solution," says UW's Franklin.

The most aggressive scientist-advocates claim they can lead a successful double life. The key, they say, is to make it clear that when they are taking a stand, they are doing so not as a scientist but as a citizen, and that their views are based on values. "I try to make that distinction clear to people," says Environmental Defense's Wilcove. Many advocates who spoke with Science said they wear "two hats," as a scientist and as an activist. Watling, for example, says he has defended his reputation by continuing to publish research, even while writing commentaries--including ones comparing trawling to clear-cutting a forest--"termed rants by my colleagues," he says ( Science, 18 December 1998, p. 2168). But he and others admit that reporters, particularly those coming in cold to report on an issue, often don't see the difference.

The debate isn't going away anytime soon. Pickett says he is preparing a white paper for the ESA aimed at lawmakers and others that will "clear up some misconceptions" about the differences between an ecologist and an environmentalist. (Rykiel of Washington State thinks the ESA should produce guidelines for its members on where to draw the line on advocacy, although society officials say they have no immediate plans for that.) Meanwhile, the Society for Conservation Biology has commissioned a panel of members to hammer out an issue paper on the topic--though they're still struggling to "define advocacy," says Gary Meffe of the University of Florida, Gainesville, editor of the society's journal.

Whether their colleagues are right or wrong, many ecologists staunchly defend the right to speak out, even when the science is unclear. "If some people didn't feel deeply about some of these issues, scientists never would have pursued them and we would not know the vast majority of what we know in science," says Tilman. "I don't think there's anything wrong with conveying these hunches when they're relevant to society."