The Silence Of The Scientists

I recently read what I consider to be no less than a scientific community integrity risking proposal. The article was called "The power and pitfalls of science advice", and it is on page 12 of the August 2014 edition of Physics World for those of you with access. To summarize, for those that do not have access, it is about the difficulty science advisors have in providing advice without causing offence. It gave some examples where science advisors have been forced to resign as they have made public statements that have embarrassed those they advise. Incidentally, the article did not point out that all the damaging statements were entirely in accord with the scientific consensus. Anyway, the article (here and later by "article" I mean the views quoted within it. I am not being critical of the writer) was basically a call for advising scientists to be more politically astute and to maintain a stiff upper lip when "their science" is ignored. This idea is unusual as it seems entirely benign at first. This is what makes it dangerous. It risks normalization of an unusual nasty ideal.

My own interpretation of the role/meaning of a scientific advisor is simple. It is a senior scientist/scientific-group who can be called upon, for any issue, to explain what all the combined relevant evidence suggests ie the scientific consensus. We call this advice but more accurately it is just reiterating our best descriptions of reality. I am not sure it is actually advice to tell someone that they will likely die if they jump from tall buildings. Similarly, it is not advice to say astrology will not help the national health service. It is cold hard reality. The role is not that complex really or so I thought.

The article's interpretation of a science advisor is different. It seems to suggest it should someone who smoothes the way for politicians so they are not caught out when scientists ask them inconvenient questions. Someone publicly invisible unless their boss allows that they explain some carefully selected policy. Naturally, these select appearances will be used to give the false appearance that their boss was actually listening to scientific evidence for all policies. However, that the advisor is helping manipulate the scientific community would not be the concern of our advisor. (After all, he is only following orders.) The article's advisor's default position on any issue would be familiar to most people:
"I can't talk about that, I'm here to talk about ...".
It is familiar as politicians say this, or similar, a lot for two main reasons. Firstly, to avoid accidentally stating something they feel which might later turn out to conflict with their party line. Secondly, as they don't want to repeat the party line on another issue as it is obviously inconsistent with their statements on the current issue. We expect such cowardly language from politicians but I hate to think that senior scientists want to aim to sink to this level.

Of course, a party or politician might happen to be pro-science independently. Then all my concerns would be entirely unfounded. This happens. Some politicians do "know the science", they attend scientific conferences, and understand the scientific consensus on issues they are working in. These folk do not need advisors but are alas exceptionally rare. Conversely anti-science politicians are a dime a dozen. Yet, according to the article, advisors should carefully avoid trying to steer the anti-science lot towards science. Yes, they really did recommend that advocating the scientific consensus should be avoided!

What fundamental difference would there be between the article-described-role, when helping an anti-science policy/politician, and a rogue fraudulent scientist, solely out for personal fame and wealth. Both are damaging to science, both know their actions are damaging, and both display carefully selected unrepresentative examples to appease the wider scientific community. At least the rogue scientist is honest with himself. Are we really meant to accept that following a manipulative script that someone else has prepared is significantly better than one you made yourself?

In the West we all (rightly) scream blue murder when a Chinese scientist censors his scientific opinion for solely political reasons (see here). It is crazy that we should ask our most influential scientists to act in a similar fashion.

If a party or politician's actions cannot be backed by the scientific consensus or they choose to ignore science for ideological reasons they should at least have the balls to say so. If so, they certainly should not need a scientific advisor to help them pretend otherwise. There is simply no need for a scientific advisor to be publicly silent on any issue on which they are knowledgeable. Tell it as it is to whoever asks be that the public or the politician.

If honesty and scientific integrity are impediments to working in a role either don't take it or don't pretend to care about science.