Author: Raymond

Science and Politics: The Problem of Scientists Moonlighting as Activists

Science and Politics: The Problem of Scientists Moonlighting as Activists

Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?

A year ago today, I gave a speech to a crowd of more than 5,000 people at the University of Michigan as the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and as the guest of a Nobel Laureate, Eric Lander, whose work we covered in “The Science of God.” The occasion was the opening of my office in Ann Arbor, a building named for my mentor, Thomas S. Kuhn, who won the Nobel Prize. It was my first official workday there.

My speech was titled, “Science and Politics,” and it was one of the first to address the phenomenon of scientists moonlighting as activists: Researchers working in collaboration with activists, or advocating for social or political causes, even while working in private and on the side. I’m going to discuss my perspective on these issues here, in this post.

I started thinking about this phenomenon after I saw a video of a science writer using her credentials as a public speaker to advocate for climate action, on the grounds that her work on climate change would be more interesting to a general audience, and would therefore generate more traffic to her website. This was a major problem for us, as scientists: Our work is often written up in widely read venues and even used for non-scientific purposes, but without the necessary rigor. I’ve heard firsthand from many of my fellow scientists that they feel very strongly that they should not be able to participate in advocacy for political causes on the side, without the appropriate checks and balances in place.

We’ve now known for a while that scientists, who are supposed to act in their professional capacity, can also use their special skills to promote causes they’re passionate about.

This can become a problem for scientists in academia and, more commonly, in the “public” in the private sector. If you’re

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