EScAPE is a project focused on science advice, so a good place to start is in defining science advice. The short answer is that science advice is no one thing but can take many forms. Here I’ll outline five idealized forms of science advice in the form of different roles that might be taken by science advisors – who could be individuals, but just as or more common, groups or committees. In my book, The Honest Broker, I describe four modes of engagement by scientists and other experts. They are ideal types but have proven useful in a range of contexts for discussing roles and responsibilities of advisors, and the purposes of advice. The different modes are a function of how we think about democracy and how we think about the proper role of science in society. Of course, in the real world things are far more complex than any simple framework can represent, but simple frameworks often help us to open the door to greater complexities.
The Pure Scientist
This role doesn't really exist in the real world. Well, maybe it does for a brief moment when a beginning graduate student finds someone willing to pay them to do research that s/he is curious about, But in the real world, grant applications and funding comes with expectations of impact and relevance. In any case, if the pure scientist really did exist, the role is defined by a sincere desire not to engage in policy or politics. So for now, let's leave it aside (it'll come back shortly in the context of stealth issue advocacy).
The Science Arbiter
This role supports a decision maker by providing answers to questions that can be addressed empirically, that is to say, using the tools of science. We are most familiar with science arbiters in the form of expert advisory committees, such as those of the National Academy of Sciences or of a federal agency like the Food and Drug Administration. A while back, Dan Sarewitz and I outlined a formal methodology for thinking about and evaluating this type of role (here in PDF). Science arbitration is common and there are many examples of it being done more or less well, and on issues people care about we can be sure that it is never far from political influences.
The Issue Advocate
The defining characteristic of this role is a desire to reduce the scope of available choice, often to a single preferred outcome among many possible outcomes. Issue advocacy is fundamental to a healthy democracy and is a noble calling. Advocacy among scientists is often viewed pejoratively, but I don't think it necessarily has to be. Scientists are citizens and as experts have an important roles to play in participating in public debates. Advocating for candidates, policies or even general directions of travel (e.g,. “maintain scientific integrity!”) is worth doing. I am very precise in my use of this term, as we can get into trouble be playing the role of advocate but pretending that we are not.
The Honest Broker of Policy Alternatives
The defining characteristic of the honest broker is a desire to clarify, or sometimes to expand, the scope of options available for action. I often use travel websites like Expedia as examples of honest brokers in action that we are all familiar with. I’ve found that sometimes people get caught up on the word "honest" here over the word “broker.” What is important in this role is the commitment to clarify the scope of possible action so as to empower the decision maker under the expectation that advisors advise and decision makers decide, facilitating democratic accountability. Sometimes honest brokers are unnecessary in a political setting, for instance, when advocacy groups collectively cover the scope of available choice. But sometimes policy making would benefit from greater clarity on choice, or the invention of choices previously unseen, or making transparent the smorgasbord of options from which elected officials are choosing policies to advocate.
There is also a fifth category, what I call the Stealth Issue Advocate. This role is characterized by the expert who seeks to hide his/her advocacy behind a facade of science, typically either the pure scientist or the science arbiter. This role seeks to swim in a sea of politics without getting wet, and is often advertised by catchy phrases like “Follow the Science!” Stealth advocacy is one of the fastest routes to pathologically politicizing science. It is also what can give scientists as advocates a bad name.
Let me add some observations about the framework based on my experiences engaging with it around the world over much of the past 15+ years. In this framework, there are no hidden or alternative roles. This is it. I reject the idea, which I often hear, that experts have a role to play in simply elevating the quality of debate or increasing science literacy among the public. Nope. There are no such roles distinct from the framework I’ve outlines, which are a fast track to stealth advocacy.
It is really difficult, especially in highly political settings, for any one individual to play the role of science arbiter or honest broker. This is due to the fact that there are often many views on what "the science" says (including conflicting views, uncertainties and areas of ignorance) or what the possible scope of action looks like. In addition, each of us has biases and idiosyncrasies which can make it difficult to see an issue from multiple perspectives. Even further, it is a rare policy issue where any one person knows everything of relevance and is cognizant of all values at stake.
Thus, typically, science arbitration and honest brokering of policy alternatives are best done by committee, ideally, by legitimate, authoritative bodies which are well-connected to policy makers.
Where stealth advocacy is concerned, the expert's intent really doesn't matter. When an issue is deeply politicized, science is typically already associated with the different "sides." In such a context, any statement by an expert about science absent political context will readily be appropriated in advocacy, regardless of the expert's intention. Stealth advocacy is the result. This makes science advice a minefield of trouble for the expert who thinks that interjecting “facts” into a politicized debate has potential for depoliticization. Often it is exactly the opposite that occurs.
It is a responsibility of the expert to be informed about engagement before engaging. It does no good to explain how you wish the world worked or how it should work as an excuse for not understanding real-world political context.
A well-functioning system of decision making and expertise will find all four roles of The Honest Broker well populated, and stealth advocacy avoided. Context of course matters for what roles are more or less important. The proper role of an expert in the face of an approaching tornado will be very different than in the context of setting a national abortion policy.
Context will determine the proper roles for any particular expert. Inevitably, most of us will find ourselves in advocacy roles. We experts can play multiple roles simultaneously. The categories aren’t essential characteristics of an individual, but roles we take on differently in different contexts. For instance, I am a strong advocate for certain climate policies (e.g., a carbon tax), but also for college sports reform and for abolishing "sex testing" in the Olympic sports. Simultaneously, I have been playing a supporting roles on formal and informal advisory committees tasked with science arbitration and honest brokering. When I do genealogy research for fun, that might be considered pure science.
Because issue advocacy is often a default role and it is so appealing to all of us, there is a need to support the institutionalization of mechanisms of science arbitration and honest brokering. Quite obviously, in most highly political issues, there is no shortage of advocates who have both expertise and fancy degrees. One concern is that at times (and increasingly so, it seems) our most authoritative science advisory bodies are seduced into playing the role of issue advocate, leading to a potential loss of their legitimacy in public debates.
There are strong incentives for science to be politicized but also for politics to become scientized. Science has great standing among the public. This standing can be used as a resource of authority from which to advocate for certain outcomes, policies or candidates. But caution is needed as even issue advocacy can work against the standing of science among certain parts of the public (e.g., in reinforcing a partisan divide) and ultimately against the very authority of science in policy and politics. Hence a need for thoughtful consideration of roles and responsibilities.
Ultimately, what matters for us experts is having an open discussion about roles and contexts and developing a sophisticated understanding of politics. In the end, scientific integrity matters because we need expertise in decision making. But maintaining scientific integrity requires careful attention to roles and responsibilities, and sometimes choosing a path that facilitates or empowers decision making rather than trying to determine its outcomes.