How to Be an Effective Science Advocate

By Jonathan Randall, Millennium Challenge Corporation

Imagine you are walking down the street on your way to your favorite sandwich shop.  You are dreaming about the amazing chicken sandwich you are about to order when all of a sudden an activist from Veggie Lovers Unite! hands you a flyer. On the front page it says “Switch now!  Become a vegetarian!”  Just underneath the headline is a citation from a very reputable scientific journal.  It cites the statistic: “it takes 10 times more fossil fuel to produce one calorie of animal protein than it does to produce one calorie of plant protein.”

On the back page of the flyer, there are quotes from several well-known scientists, politicians, and celebrities about how happy they are now that they switched to vegetarianism.  The flyer also outlines a five step plan for how to make the switch from die-hard, meat-devouring carnivore to tofu-marinating vegetarian.

You continue walking down the street to the sandwich shop.  You’re not normally a vegetarian, but you were just presented with some credible scientific evidence that switching to vegetarianism would be good for the environment, and that’s something you care about.  Are you going to make the switch?  Are you going to order the vegetarian sandwich?

The answer is most likely: No.  Even though you are a “science-type” and hold scientific evidence in high regard, the statistic on the flyer is just not enough to convince you to make a major life change.  In fact, it isn’t even enough to convince you to order a vegetarian sandwich five minutes after reading the flyer.

Now imagine you are the head of a government agency, say the City Water Authority.  An environmental scientist from the World Climate Organization comes to brief you on the impact that climate change will have on your water management systems.  Are you going to take his or her word and start making changes tomorrow?  Probably not.

What, then, is required to make a government official, or anyone for that matter, digest new evidence and take action?

Environmental science is useful, but it is such a tiny blip on the radar screens of most government officials, company decision-makers, community leaders, and other movers-and-shakers, that anyone wanting to make some kind of difference must consider a whole set of non-scientific, non-evidence-based factors upon which the important decisions are made or else risk total irrelevance.

Now I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, and I’m sure many people reading this blog entry will be thinking “of course there are many factors that go into decision-making aside from quantitative evidence, duh!!”

But I’ve observed, after spending many years in the private, non-profit and government sectors, that there is still a pervasive belief among many in the science community that follows the idea:  “if only we present enough high quality scientific evidence, then the decision makers will see the light, and make a change.”

In some cases, scientific evidence and quantitative analyses do go very far in advancing a particular idea and it can make a difference in and of itself. This is especially true when the analysis or cause is paired with a charismatic spokesperson.  Take for example Al Gore and climate change, Wangari Maathi and the greenbelt movement in Africa, or John Muir and national parks.   These people are well-connected, well-known, and well spoken advocates for their causes that were able to make serious headway in their lifetimes with good scientific analyses to support their cases.

But what about scientific advocates who feel passionately about their causes and want to help facilitate important changes in conventional practices, but are not as-well positioned as celebrities to make these changes occur? If she or he wants to see a government agency, corporation or community make a major change, such as integrating climate adaptation into their operations, this will take more than a decent scientific analysis. But what else does it require? Here are a few suggestions:

#1. Tailor Your Analysis to Your Audience

Many excellent and well-reasoned scientific analyses are not tailored for the decision-maker making the decision and therefore fail to achieve their intended affect.  This may seem obvious but it happens time and time again!  For example, a climate adaptation specialist may feel passionately that a development agency should invest in mangrove protection as a way to protect coastlines from extreme weather events and storm surge.  To make his or her case, the specialist prepares a report that shows that mangrove protection is effective against storm surge and should be considered as an alternative to building a concrete seawall.  While the analysis may be convincing for a critical scientific audience, it may not persuade that specific decision maker who has access to resources and could turn the idea into reality.

From the point of view of the decision-maker or someone in charge of resource allocation, it is very likely that a cost-benefit analysis that demonstrates cost-savings or well-reasoned business plan that shows how to achieve returns on investment would be more effective tools than a climate vulnerability assessment alone.  If the decision-maker’s native language is economics than a sound economic argument will be more influential than an ecological argument no matter how convincing it appears to the ecologist preparing the analyst.

The types of analyses that science advocates prepare should also be sensitive to the nature of the decisions that people in decision-making positions have the ability to make.  For example, a climate adaptation specialist may assume that a City Manager or Social Investment Bank Manger must decide between spending money on mangrove restoration or a concrete seawall to protect the coastline from extreme weather events; however, it is possible that the real decision may be deciding between mangrove restoration, a beach side hotel investment, or a new set of street lamps.  If the decision is between street lamps and mangrove restoration, the analysis arguing in favor of the mangrove restoration should explain why mangrove restoration would be a better investment than street lamps – which would be a totally different argument than explaining why mangrove restoration is a better investment than a concrete seawall.  By taking the time to understand the point of the view of the audience – and the specific types of decisions they have influence over – the science advocate can tailor their analysis in a way that is more effective, persuasive, and works towards achieving the desired result as opposing to being a beautiful analysis that gathers dust on the shelf.

#2. Make It Easy to Implement

Scientists and researchers, in general, love complexity and nuance.  This is especially true of environmental and climate scientists, who work with very complex, interconnected systems, such as ecological niches or atmospheric cycles.  The deeper scientists delve into a system, the more nuance, complexity and uncertainty they find.  While this complexity can be fascinating from an academic perspective and be the main source of inspiration for people who undertake careers in research, it is also precisely what drives decision-makers in government, business, and NGOs absolutely crazy.

Decision-makers dislike uncertainty, complexity, and nuance because it exposes them and their organizations to risk (think: financial, political, and reputational).  If you are the head of a Water Authority, you want to know what will happen if you increase water supply capacity by 50 percent and what are the ways to get this done.  You want scientific analyses to provide solid guidance on what course of action you should take and you will naturally gravitate towards issues that are easy to understand with reliable outcomes.  This desire for certainty and risk-aversion runs completely contrary to the contents of most climate vulnerability assessments that talk about various and unknowable “climate futures.”    This makes climate adaptation, which is already difficult enough to communicate as a topic, even more scary and risky for decision-makers who want to make decisions based on reliable outcomes.

In addition to avoiding uncertainty, many decision-makers are planners and project managers, and are keenly interested in how an idea could be made operational.  In some cases, they may place more emphasis on the question of whether the idea could be implemented successfully than whether it was a good idea to begin with.

For these reasons, it would be wise for the climate adaptation specialist to not only present the scientific analyses and arguments for action, but also to suggest some specific and realistic strategies for how it could be logically programmed within an organizational structure; the more specifics the better.  For example, if a city water supply system is at risk of a changing climate, the analysis describing the potential impacts and “various climate futures” should also describe what specific steps can realistically be taken to address this issue, if any.  The steps should reflect a realistic understanding of the regulatory and institutional constrains (and opportunities) that exist within the city.  For example, if the recommendation is for an agricultural community to switch to less water intensive crops, than the analysis should describe the regulatory and institutional constraints and opportunities for switching crops and the types of laws and institutions that would need to be modified or created to make this happen.  An analysis that simply states “farmers need to switch to less water intensive crops” will not be persuasive unless the analysis also includes a discussion of the specific changes in the regulatory, institutional, and cultural setting that will enable this recommendation to happen.  An informed, targeted, and specific set of recommendations will begin to paint a realistic picture of what solutions to the problem would look like, and this is a logical first step towards making them happen.

#3. Make Friends

When you hear people talking about the need to address climate change there seems to always be an underlying “us” versus “them” attitude.  Depending on your point of view, the “us” can refer to the people with the knowledge and data that know about climate change and its impacts whereas the “them” are those silly decision-makers or other people in power that “just don’t get it.”

Or from a different point of view, the “us” can be the people in power who “know the right way to get things done and how to navigate the political system” whereas the “them” are the “passionate techies that are overreacting about this whole climate thing.”

There are many factors that explain why this dichotomy exists but the point is that this “us” versus “them” is actually very time-consuming for both sides and distracts from actually achieving some kind of meaningful solution in the world of climate adaptation.

One strategy for overcoming this “us versus them” problem is to make a few friends on the other side of the debate.  If you’re a technical expert, than you should find some people who you would consider in the “them” camp and make friends with them on a personal basis.  These might be city managers, organizational leaders, bankers or other people that would be outside your normal sphere of friends and acquaintances. By building trust on a personal level, it is possible that you both can gain some mutual understanding of what it takes to find effective and realistic solutions our climate problem.

And remember:

“In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.” - Sir Francis Darwin, April 1914

Mr. Jonathan Randall is an Ecologist with over 12 years’ experience in climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction, sustainable development, training and communications.  He has responded to numerous “extreme events” including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, cyclones in Mozambique and Micronesia, and Hurricane Katrina.  He is currently a Senior Program Officer with the Environmental and Social Assessment Department at the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.