Ann Campbell Keller


On her book Science in Environmental Policymaking: The Politics of Objective Advice

Cover Interview of November 15, 2009

In a nutshell

In this book, I examine the awkward position that scientists find themselves in when they enter environmental policy debates.  In such debates experts try to square their appeal as objective, neutral participants with the necessary currency of the policy process—i.e. advocacy and persuasion.  To learn about how scientists negotiate this difficult terrain, the book follows policy debates in the United States surrounding acid rain and global climate change.  I argue that we cannot understand scientists’ participation without paying close attention to the specific context in which they engage in policy debates. 

The book studies scientists in three distinct settings defined by recognizable stages of the policy process—agenda setting, legislation, and policy implementation.  The analysis demonstrates that the norms governing scientists’ participation shift as each policy issue evolves.

What is striking, when comparing the nature of scientists’ participation across each stage of the policy process, is the extent to which scientists are allowed to act as advocates during agenda setting.  As agenda setters, scientists have a role in placing issues on the formal policy agenda and framing those issues in ways that shape subsequent debate.  Such behavior in later stages of policy making is both less likely to occur and more likely to spark conflict.

For example, during congressional testimony about climate change during the particularly hot summer of 1988, renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen declared with “99 percent confidence” that the observed warming trend was attributable to climate change.  His statement drew intense criticism from other scientists who felt that Hansen was overstating scientific confidence in predicting climate change.

The scrutiny Hansen faced over this episode, while typical in legislative policymaking, is almost never found in agenda setting.  The book points to increasing formalization over the course of the policy process to explain the change in norms governing scientists’ participation.  Agenda setting is a fairly informal and unstructured process while legislation and, to an even greater degree, policy implementation are characterized by explicit rules and procedures.

This increase in formality has consequences for scientists who participate in policymaking.  Scientists enjoy quite a bit of leeway in deciding how they will balance the need for advocacy in policy settings with the notion of scientific objectivity.  In the more formal policymaking settings, scientists face increasing pressure to appear objective.