Comparing student and professional attitudes toward advocacy in science
Despite 25 years of published editorials arguing if and how natural resources and environmental scientists should be involved in policy formation, unresolved conflict prevails. Few empirical studies have formally identified existing areas of contention within and across groups engaged in science and policy, and no study has addressed the perspectives of students about to begin careers in natural resources. The goal of this study is to advance the conversation about scientists’ roles in advocacy by including perspectives of students entering careers in natural resources and environmental sciences. We conducted exploratory research to compare attitudes of students, academic faculty, and other natural resource professionals, mostly in the Southeastern United States. We then conducted two discussion-based lessons in an undergraduate course and measured changes to students' knowledge and attitudes pertaining to advocacy.
We found general disagreement about what actions constitute advocacy and what conduct is acceptable for scientists. Faculty and professionals only viewed some of the activities listed as advocacy while undergraduate students’ definitions were most inclusive. Groups agreed scientists should not avoid and engage in advocacy to improve policy. Students, faculty, and professionals reported a lack of formal training about appropriate relationships between science, scientists, and policy. From surveys administered before and after classroom lessons, undergraduates viewed fewer activities as examples of advocacy and reported higher levels of agreement that negative outcomes to a scientists’ professional standing can occur when advocating but scientists should continue to engage in advocacy. Given a shift toward attitudes supporting closer relationships between scientists and advocacy seen in this and other recent published works, our findings suggest acceptable contexts in which scientists can seek more active roles in influencing policy if they so choose and lend support for further training beginning at the undergraduate level.