Author: Jeffrey

The Science of the Environment

The Science of the Environment

Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?

A growing number of environmental activists are working in close collaboration with scientists to advance their causes. This is not unprecedented — there is some evidence that in some fields of research, scientists have sometimes adopted the language and techniques of their non-academic peers to advance their work, or even to develop new ideas of their own.

I recently heard a compelling argument made for a different view of this phenomenon from a well-known environmental activist: Professor Peter Kareiva of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Kareiva described to me a conversation he had with an anonymous scientist who was passionate about promoting better conservation and better science in the face of new environmental pressures and threats.

“We talked about how [the activist scientist] was passionate about the environment, how much he cared about it,” Kareiva told me. “I said that was a shame, because he could use his education to bring more scientists to the cause.”

That this was an anonymous scientist is significant. It suggests that most scientists may not know — perhaps do not consider themselves, in any honest sense — to whom they owe their integrity and reputation and are not aware of whether they have any obligation to publicly disclose their ties to activists and non-academic colleagues who seek to advance the interests of their own groups.

Kareiva was careful to stress that none of his conversations with this activist scientist had resulted in a commitment by the scientist to act as an “official” member of a lobby, political, or activist group or organization.

“This is not about some sort of personal, secret, secret, whatever secret society,” Kareiva said. “This is about one individual who is committed to this cause, who is a teacher and who is an intellectual, who has been dedicated to this cause for 30 years but never made any effort to get more people to think about it.”

This is an important point, but the question remains

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