This week I read a pair of remarkable articles on scientists who have stood up against industry.

The first piece, in the Feb. 10 edition of The New Yorker, profiles UC-Berkeley toxicologist Tyrone Hayes and is decade-long battle against agrochemical giant Syngenta regarding the credibility of his research showing that trace amounts of the herbicide atrazine can cause hermaphrodism in frogs.  Recent documents reveal the extent to which the company deployed legal and communications teams to attempt to discredit Hayes. 

The second article, in the Feb. 7 edition of Science, profiles University of Maryland ecologist Margaret Palmer, whose research on stream restoration has led to her frequent appearances as an expert witness in court battles over mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (and even an appearance on the Colbert Report!).  The article documents examples of cross-examinations that verge on personal attacks, yet the naturally-introverted Palmer has remained unflappable.

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The landscape of much of West Virginia has been altered through mountaintop removal, prompting University of Maryland ecologist Margaret Palmer to become engaged in legal battles. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My students have had some lively debates about the appropriate role of scientists in engaging in pubic policy.  Some have taken the traditional view that scientists must remain completely objective to protect their credibility, and that we must let the science speak for itself.  Others have argued that scientists have an important role in communicating their work directly to policy makers, and in engaging in public conversations related to their area of expertise.

My own thinking on this issue has shifted over the last few years.  I began graduate school thinking that basic research was less value laden, and more intellectually pure, than applied research.  But I have come to see the value, and necessity, of doing research that is policy-relevant.  For the past decade I have been reading and writing papers about nitrogen removal removal in aquatic ecosystems, which inevitably argue that such research is critical in order to better understand how to prevent the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  I’ve started to have a harder time buying this justification.  While this kind of research is important in its own right, eliminating the dead zone doesn’t necessarily require a better understanding of the controls of microbial denitrification in streams; it requires changing the way we do agriculture in the Midwest.

This comes on the heels of a recent study from the National Science Foundation documenting the extent of scientific illiteracy in our culture.  One in four Americans believes the sun goes around the Earth, and only half understand that antibiotics are not effective against viruses.  Given this backdrop, its easy to understand how opinions on topics like climate change can split along party lines.  The science is complicated, and it’s a lot easier to believe voices you trust than to try and sort through all of the data and draw your own conclusions.

It’s overwhelming to consider the resources that industries have available to publicly raise doubts about any scientific findings (or the scientists themselves) that question the safety of profitable practices.  As Hayes said in the New Yorker article, scientists publish their research “in magazines that you can’t buy at Barnes & Noble.”  The problem with “letting the science speak for itself” is that there is just so much background noise.

I don’t see myself getting embroiled in these kinds of controversies like Tyrone Hayes and Margaret Palmer anytime soon, but I am trying to do research that is policy-relevant–and to instill this value in my students.  This spring, my Urban Ecosystem Ecology course is preparing a report for the Minneapolis City Council on composting on urban farms, before the council takes up the issue this summer.  Stay tuned for updates…