Scientists eager to engage on environment but still hesitate, research shows

close up of leaves
close up of leaves
Photo courtesy NAU IDEA Lab

A survey of more than 500 researchers indicates that scientists have the desire to get more involved in public discussion and policy decisions regarding environmental issues, but have concerns about how their efforts might be perceived.

The results of the survey, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, show that scientists overwhelmingly support outreach efforts. Ninety-eight percent of participants said they would be willing to advocate for a policy if they felt there was sufficient scientific evidence to support their position. However, many participants also indicated they were concerned that their peers would disapprove of this type of activity.

Tom Sisk, Olajos-Goslow Chair of Environmental Science and Policy at Northern Arizona University and a co-author of the study, said “there is an inherent contradiction in what researchers believe and how they act—a strong majority of scientists believe that policy engagement is important, yet many do not get involved themselves. It’s a conundrum that indicates a need for change in the culture of science.”

Sisk added that many researchers feel they have important knowledge that could contribute to environmental problem solving, yet they often remain on the sidelines.

Confidence played a big role in whether researchers were willing to get involved. Those who felt they were good at reaching out did so more often, while negative experiences turned people off.

“We identified some of the barriers that prevent scientists from engaging,” said Gerald Singh of the University of British Columbia, who is the lead author of the study. “It turns out that one of the biggest barriers is whether they perceive themselves as competent.”

Singh suggested that researchers take part in communication training early in their career to boost confidence and to avoid the likelihood of a negative experience.