[OPINION] Speaking truth to power: Why the government should listen to scientists


In an era of misinformation, twisted half-truths, and downright lies, incorporating science into good governance is not just important, it is vital. Science, as an evidence-based discipline, sometimes feels at odds with the current political environment, which often seems to ignore evidence freely and whenever it is convenient.

I am a young American scientist who was fortunate enough to do marine mammal work in the Philippines with support from the Fulbright program. Unfortunately, I can attest to the fact that the pointed refusal to acknowledge facts, namely when they interfere with agendas or talking points, is, and has been, an international political trend. Not only is this frustrating, but it is downright dangerous. The denial of science and facts interferes with governments around the world being able to prepare for, mediate, and respond to crises like emerging epidemics, natural disasters, and climate change. 

Scientific conclusions have to be backed by carefully collected data. In many research circles, the running joke is that data doesn’t care about your feelings. This tends to become apparent at the worst of times – for example, the night before an undergraduate lab report is due, months into thesis preparation, or when you realize your experimental design is wrong at 3 am. But this seemingly cold indifference is in large part where science derives its strength. When done well, scientific conclusions are sound because they can stand alone, independent of the researchers that crafted them. 

In an ideal world, this would make science highly sought after in government. If multiple researchers who, as human beings, have their own set of biases even as they seek to limit them come to the same conclusions, those results can be trusted as apolitical. In this, science has the capacity to reach across ideological divides. One of its core principles is that scientific conclusions should be reproducible anywhere by anyone (if their funding hasn’t dried up).

Instead, the reaction to unfortunate scientific findings is often ridicule and scorn. I am immensely grateful that the United States has a long history of investing in scientific research through programs like the National Science Foundation. However, even just last week, President Trump ridiculed climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling them “perennial prophets of doom” and “heirs of yesterday's foolish fortune tellers,” even when the broad consensus that climate change is real, caused by human activity, and dangerous is backed by heaps of evidence collected from around the globe. This moment is just one example of an alarming disconnect between scientific reality and political action. 

However, when coupled, science and policy can tackle monumental problems, including natural disasters. When predictions are sound and evacuations are planned and implemented before danger strikes, lives are saved. When they aren’t, the results can be catastrophic. With the ongoing Taal eruption, Phivolcs has had the difficult task of balancing risk assessment and the unfortunate reality that mass evacuations put people in difficult, distressing situations. Leaving homes, animals, and belongings behind, knowing they might be buried under a blanket of ash when you return, is far from easy. But if Phivolcs reduces warning levels too soon, thousands of people could be caught in the path of an incinerating pyroclastic flow or other volcanic hazard. In this, Phivolcs bears a great and difficult responsibility. (READ: Netizens defend Phivolcs amid criticisms)

Scientific organizations like Phivolcs often seem to get caught between the dueling questions of “What is going on?” and “Tell me what I want to hear.” But when scientific conclusions are listened to, even at their most dire, a necessary cooperation is forged between science and policy.

Natural disasters, many of which are being strengthened by climate change, remind us how fragile life can be. Typhoons, volcanic eruptions, wildfires, and earthquakes are facts of life. Even when we don’t want them to strike, they will. There are scientists working around the world, around the clock, to keep us informed and safe. Understanding our world makes it a safer one, because in the face of disaster, the most important thing is that we are prepared. 

I have had the distinct privilege of working with many hard-working, dedicated Filipino scientists, and am even luckier to call them my friends and mentors. They deserve a seat at the decision-making table, just as scientists in the United States deserve it in our government. Science’s role in governance should be to inform and impact good political decision-making, and this can only be achieved by affording scientists respect and support, and that includes funding.

The globalized world often feels overwhelming, with new problems emerging faster than existing one’s can be solved. Scientists provide a path through the dark of misunderstanding, and as the new decade begins, governments around the world would do well to listen to them. Especially when it's not convenient. – Rappler.com

Timothy Gardner is an environmental scientist and marine mammal researcher from the United States. He was a US 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar to the Philippines and conducted whale research with the NGO Balyena.org.