On the science riskometer, how much are you willing to take?

RiskometerSome would argue that much of life boils down to a series of risk versus reward decisions.

This equation-based way of viewing life can be applied both to personal and professional levels. When it comes to the latter and to biomedical scientists specifically, how much risk should we take?

What forms could this risk take?

On a scientific level, risk could involve publishing something too fast before you are sure the results are accurate or publishing data too slowly and getting scooped. Or you could submit a grant that is a high risk-high reward proposition and find reviewers are uncomfortable with the level of risk so you don’t get funding.

What I’m more interested in today is the idea of scientists taking risks (or not) by publicly taking specific positions on policy matters.

Years ago I once asked the venerable DrugMonkey of DrugMonkey Blog fame (a great blog primarily on science funding issues including NIH grantsmanship) about the possible risk of being a blogging scientist using one’s own name as I do. DrugMonkey replied sagely, “Everything is a risk” for us scientists. Perhaps this is one reason why DrugMonkey blogs using a pseudonym.

If one feels strongly about a science policy issue, how outspoken should a scientist be? Pushing this question further, if a scientist sees something that she feels is wrong, should she say something publicly even if that risks negative repercussions or even outright retaliation? What if it feels like “everyone” else or at least powerful people have the opposite view?

We can see historical examples of where saying nothing was harmful by allowing bad things to continue happening and escalate. Most of us can think of other situations where contrarian people who spoke up got hurt because they took that risk. Of course there may be times we think something is wrong and then later we realize that maybe we were wrong.

How “wrong” does the situation have to be for you to pull the trigger on standing up publicly at any given time on an important policy issue? Where do you fall on the riskometer? Has this changed over time and if so, why?

5 thoughts on “On the science riskometer, how much are you willing to take?”

  1. @Jeff Muggles
    It is interesting to take a case study of how policy and science are related and the role played by scientists in the public forum. To fully flesh out just one example would take a book, so much will be omitted.

    Let us consider the very public example of “climate-change policy” in Canada. Under the previous (conservative) government, the policy was to grudgingly admit that CO2 will modify climate and invest in things like carbon capture from coal-fired power generation facilities. Journals, like “Nature”, singled out that government (and a similar Australian government) for criticism when it came to climate change policy. That government was also criticized by “Nature” for muzzling government scientists. Some academic scientists spoke out against the muzzling policy and a great many more against the policy on “climate change”. (I did not hear if they were adversely treated for speaking out — worth investigating? As far as I could tell, the government just ignored them.)

    Perhaps one could argue that “Nature” and those academics who spoke out changed government policy. Certainly, a new party has since been elected to government. I’d suggest there were many other factors — including the Canadian recession brought about by ramped-up production by OPEC — that played a far bigger role.

    The new government says that government scientists are no longer muzzeled. As for climate change, there have been fine words about reducing emissions. How, exactly, is unclear. There are vague words about green technologies but when you look at the details with an analytical eye you often find that “green” is about what part of the ecosystem you prefer to disrupt. (I just love that American advertisement talking about green hydroelectricity from Canada. Nothing like a great big dam to change the ecosystem. Consider that the Gulf of Mexico was once an estuary, now it’s an inverse estuary!) One thing that is clear, however, is that the new government aims to rapidly grow the economy by boosting population growth (the Ministers words, not mine).

    Several things are well known. Published work demonstrates that people living at higher latitudes use more energy per person (for obvious reasons, they need to). Increasing the population of Canada is an excellent way to increase global warming. There is also published evidence that economic growth is tightly coupled to the availability of lots of high quality, inexpensive energy. Contradictions (I would say deceptions) of government policies are clearly exposed by the scientific evidence. Paradoxically, now that government scientists are no longer muzzeled, it seems that they have nothing to say.

    So what about “Nature”. Well, on the population issue, “Nature” just denies that population growth might be a part of the climate change problem. To give examples, see:

    Further, “Nature” plays the game of pretending that GMO will provide a sustainable food supply for an increasing population (even, perhaps, in view of changing climate):

    Obviously, the problem is the increasing population, not the availability of GMO. But this is not a view that will attract funding.

    Paul has written about GM foods. The article about GM salmon comes to mind:

    Now think about the wild salmon. Starting from a river, it swims out to sea, gets big and juicy, and then swims back to the river where we can pluck out a few for dinner. Salmon is a fish that pretty much farms itself. I’d say that there is something pathological about any primate who thinks that that’s not good enough!

    There are scientists who speak out on such matters. Not many. A policy maker is more likely to hear the scientist talking up GMO or some “green solution”. In my view, an honest scientist would always include — first, foremost and finally — a caveat regarding human population growth.

    Now for a scientific prediction. Being upfront about human overpopulation is always good for a few thumbs-down.

  2. Inevitably going public with any opinion concerning an ongoing public debate will bring out conspiracy theorists making enormous claims about the agendas of others. These usually begin with, “Most scientists / doctors / politicians…” followed by some ill-defined and unprovable opinion.

    What happened to balanced debate with logical and rationally argued positions, supported by available evidence, instead of the most banal of debating tools – rhetoric?

    Well never mind, there’s always that thumbs-up icon that proves I’m right. Right?

  3. From what I’ve observed, policy has little to do with science. Sure, our Canadian policy-makers are all about giving lip service to science, but only when it serves their real agenda. They become deaf and blind when the science is not fashioned to their ambitions and cultural proclivities. (Mainstream media behaves similarly.) It’s the same on both sides of the left-right divide and in between and without.

    Most scientists just slot into the game in an opportunistic fashion, like just about everyone else. Very few will say “Don’t waste your money” when the bureaucracy throws it at them. Then there are the other games, when the people throwing the money (often the military-industrial establishment) have a nasty, not-so-hidden agenda… (Be blind and collect the loot. Speak out and do not pass “GO”.)

    In my experience, the risk of going public is mostly that you will be ignored. Take comfort in the fact that most everyone is ignored most of the time. The exception being when you are stepping, inconveniently upon the territory of a powerful “senior scientist”. Then, look out!

  4. Not taking any risks may be the biggest risk of all. The key is being right about which ones to take. In the words of the song “you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.”

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