My graduate school advisor, the late Stephen Schneider, liked to ask his students: “Is the scientist-advocate an oxymoron?” As he was fond of pointing out, the two professional value systems are often in conflict. The ideal scientist is a disinterested party with a neutral perspective, while the ideal advocate is a zealous champion for a client’s subjective interest. Left alone, each system has its own internal logic. But when science and public policy meet, tension is inevitable.
Bridging the divide between analysis and advocacy isn’t a foreign concept among scientists, though it isn’t exactly common, either. Steve was a role model for many in this respect. He was a climate scientist who dedicated his career to communicating climate change—what we know, how we know it, and with what confidence. Although he was a prominent academic, Steve harbored few illusions about the ivory tower. Like most scientists who work on policy-relevant topics, he knew just how politicized research could be and how public perception and media relations complicated the innocence of academic work. Nevertheless, he embraced the opportunity to speak out about the science of climate change whenever possible.
This is hardly the norm among scientists, whatever their field. Perhaps it is better, the thinking goes, for an expert community to study its subject in private, disconnected from the media, government, and the general public. Science is pure. Leave the policy questions to the lawyers and politicians.
In law school, we talk about the duty to our clients; in science, that duty is to the truth. Scratch the surface of this story, however, and you’ll find a more complicated reality. Part of the allegiance to purity among scientists reflects a tendency to avoid the conflicts that come from asserting external authority. Many believe that speaking with non-scientists about controversial research leads to confusion, distortion, and oversimplification. The result, ironically, is that some elements of the scientific profession resist outreach when the need is greatest.
This is a huge problem in my field of research—energy and climate policy. Popular opinions on what to do about climate change abound, ranging from dismantling the Industrial Revolution to ignoring the scientific evidence altogether. While scientists can’t resolve the normative value choices we exercise in a democracy, they can help filter serious analysis from the rest. This is especially true where technical arguments form the basis for policy prescriptions.
I recently found myself in the middle of a heated debate that illustrates some of the tensions between advocacy and scientific analysis. A think tank was preparing to release a report on energy efficiency that made strong policy claims that exceeded the peer-reviewed evidence on the subject. Over e-mail, a few scientists began a debate with the think tank; this quickly grew to include reporters from national newspapers and magazines. With the press involved, our conversation took some interesting turns. My advisor’s objections to the think tank’s conclusions were highly technical and proved a challenge to communicate to the journalists. In response, the think tank tried to cast our requests for evidence as character attacks—an effective, if not exactly honest, tactic.
Working with my colleagues, I struggled to help frame the issue for the non-experts involved in the e-mail exchange. What is the evidence? On what grounds do we determine expert authority? And which claims appropriately portray scientific uncertainties? If we could bring the narrative back to these questions, our side would be able to defuse some of the more extreme claims the think tank brought to the table and then progress could be made on resolving the policy prescriptions. As I got deeper into the weeds, I realized that I had slipped into that hybrid mode of analysis Steve talked about for so many years—science advocacy.
Having crossed over into law from an energy science background, I have come to appreciate how the two worlds complement each other, and I highly recommend the reverse journey as well. Now is a great time to study energy at Stanford. For the first time in Stanford’s history, a student group has developed a comprehensive, campus-wide resource for students interested in energy issues. The Stanford Energy Club (http://energy.stanford.edu) has a complete calendar of events, a database of classes, and a list of jobs and internships. There’s no better place to start than Professor Jane Woodward’s (MS ’83, MBA ’87) class, Energy Resources (CEE 173A, fall quarters). And here at Stanford Law, we have the Energy Society of Stanford Law School.
Even if your interest as a lawyer has nothing to do with energy or the environment, chances are there’s a scientific angle to your specialty. Whether it’s biotech or digital IP, health care or tax policy, many legal specializations rest on scientific foundations. It’s worth taking some time to learn more about a relevant scientific community and how its professional norms interact with the roles we play as lawyers. In the end, I hope that will make us better—and hopefully more honest—advocates. SL
At Stanford, Cullenward studies the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector. While pursuing his law degree, he is also working on a PhD in Environment and Resources, focusing on the problems of managing and projecting national energy consumption inventories.