PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 147, Winter 2007: PRBO's Winter Field Work Across Two Hemispheres

While maintaining the highest standards of scientific objectivity, we must fulfill our responsibilities as global citizens.


Science and Advocacy in a Quickly Changing World

Ellie M. Cohen

Austral Summer
CEO's Column
Shorebirds Down Under
Farallon Island Winter
Songbird Survival
Getting the Word Out
Focus on California Quail
News About PRBO

The headline in the San Francisco Chroniecl ran: "Gore implores scientists to raise alarms; Ex-VP calls for research to be used for policy change."

Indeed, former Vice President Al Gore urged the thousands of scientists at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to speak out on global climate change "in ways that arouse appropriate alarm that can motivate changes in behavior."

The AGU has over 45,000 members worldwide working to "advanceā€¦ the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity." Their policies on advocacy mirror those of other highly respected, independent science organizations. Scientists as individuals are encouraged to speak out on political or social concerns. However, the AGU as a whole will only adopt policy positions based on "sound scientific issues."

In December 2003, the AGU did just that, when it issued an unambiguous statement on global warming stating that human activities are contributing to climate change and that these changes "constitute a real basis for concern." The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (February, 2007; found at supports and amplifies this statement.

The AGU policy argued that no threshold can be identified for when "dangerous" human-caused climate change will occur, as some impacts have already been realized and continually increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will result in increasing impacts. The organization committed to "improving the communication of scientific information to governments and private organizations so that their decisions on climate issues will be based on the best science."

If science is essentially the systematic, unbiased process of gaining an ever-increasing knowledge of nature, do scientists, and science organizations such as PRBO, have an obligation to sound the alarm bell on climate change, as Mr. Gore suggests? Where do we draw the line between advocating for sound science and advocating for an "issue?"

It seems to me that science can never be free of human values. This may be particularly true of conservation science, which by its very name imparts the value of preserving our natural environment and protecting it from further loss. Yet even though our scientific activities may be motivated by deeply held conservation values, our scientific conclusions must remain objective and unbiased. Otherwise, we lose credibility and would no longer be true to the scientific creed.

Curt Meine and Gary Meffe (Conservation Biology, June 1996) contend that conservation biology is "a necessary mixture of verifiable, reliable, scientific knowledge, cultural values, and civic responsibility." They reject "the notion that one can be either an effective conservation advocate or a credible and respectable conservation scientist, but not both." Being conservation biologists, they assert, means fulfilling responsibilities to "scientific integrity, the public interest, and that broader constituency of future generations, other life forms, and the communities of life in which we participate."

We cannot practice effective conservation to address the real-world threats of the 21st century without sound science. Science helps accurately identify the foremost challenges, in the short term and long term, as well as the best set of solutions.

While maintaining the highest standards of scientific rigor and objectivity is crucial to our success, at the same time we must also fulfill our responsibilities as global citizens.

Mr. Gore was quoted as saying to the thousands of AGU members back in December that we, as scientists, "have a duty to act on the basis of the best evidence" to address the climate crisis.

I believe that our ability at PRBO to improve conservation effectiveness during this time of unprecedented global ecological change will depend upon continuing to conduct high-quality science, communicating those findings, and actively advocating for strategies and actions consistent with the "best evidence" to date. We are morally compelled to do so--our future depends upon it.

Special thanks to Nadav Nur, Melissa Pitkin, and John Baker for their contributions to this column.

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