Responsibility to creatures great and small

Part 2 of 3 in the series “get to know your fry-entists”

It’s easy to assume that the graphs and tables produced by scientists for use in policy briefs are meant to speak for themselves and that it’s the legislator’s job to interpret the data and make appropriate decisions as a result of the knowledge.  In such realms, knowledge is power and more data distributed among scientifically literate legislators is the gold standard. I’m not disagreeing with that statement – it is a gold standard. However, the scientifically literate legislature is as yet still a dream and therefore translators are a necessary part of the picture in the life of a scientific study. One then asks whether that translation is more accurate when performed by a third party who’s sole job is to communicate scientific findings or by the scientists who produced the work themselves.  Which brings us back to the question of the week – to what degree does a scientist play the advocate?

some research has immediate applications, whether you like it or no

The answer depends on many factors, from field of study to the type of data collected, but let’s first take a step back. Take several steps back, in fact, to the genesis of that particular researcher and the question at hand.  Call it socialization, much like children learn behaviors associated with their gender, their ethnicity, and family traditions.   Becoming a scientist is in itself a process of socialization into the world and culture of science.  Part of that culture is to think about bias and objectivity, often a concern when learning experimental design.

There is something very unique and personal about the way a person approaches a particular question – how they think about the problem, what angles they find most interesting, what combination of theoretical expertise they have to bring to the table, and what tools they have to address it.  All of that information, part of a researcher’s reputation, is considered when putting together the perfect research team to best complement one another.  The process of becoming a self-aware researcher involves finding where you fit into the larger scheme of things – what are your best assets as part of that team?  If some of that is communicating your results to a demanding audience, go for it.  And make sure that you do the best possible job you can of presenting those results in an unbiased, objective manner that emphasizes exactly what you want emphasized for further actions.  But just as policymakers don’t do scientific experiments, leave the law writing to the experts.

Added perspective from my social science research half, the cultural geographer – no one in  the social sciences would even think of presenting results without first describing the context of the study and the relationship between the researcher and the study community.  These relationships are critical to the type of results received and furthermore, to how they are interpreted and used by the study members.  The effects of doing a study within a community run the gammut from instigating revolt to a minor change in awareness about the subject of the study.  But either way, a study community will never be the same and the line between science and advocacy is so gray it’s unidentifiable.  In the world of social science, there then becomes a responsibility to nurture the researcher-community relationship.  Is there really any reason that this responsibility doesn’t also apply to our ecological study communities?  We owe something to our research subjects in return for the information they’ve given us, be that as simple as detailed descriptions that speak for themselves or as evocative as helping an affected community find a voice on Capital Hill.

~bluegrass blue crab