The Big Question with Dr. Michelle Edwards: The Role of Scientists in Society.

Dr. Michelle Edwards is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas State University. Her research interests are related to environmental and social inequalities, risk perceptions, social studies of science, and sociological research methods.  For example, she has recently worked with Hannah Edwards (now a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado-Boulder) and Briana Luna (now a DPT student at University of Texas at San Antonio) on a study of how the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, engaged in by the Department of Homeland Security in relation to immigrant detention, perpetuates existing social and environmental inequalities.

What is the role of the scientist in society?

I think we cannot answer questions about the role of “scientists” without first thinking about how “scientist” is being defined (and by whom) and where its boundaries lie. For example, the International Science Council defines science in a way that includes the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, but not all share this view. In fact, as a sociologist, I was initially invited to answer these questions as someone who is “not directly involved in the sciences.” And, at first, I tried to say no to this invitation because I see myself as a scientist. I offer my perspective as someone who uses science to sometimes study science.

To respond to the first question, I would say that a scientist’s role is to do science, which involves systematically constructing a specific form of knowledge. Different fields have different norms for how this knowledge is produced. Even within in a single field, like sociology, we have many different methods for “doing science” (for example, to answer some of my research questions I have asked people survey questions, interviewed people, and analyzed documents).

Where I think my view might diverge from some other scientists is that I see “doing science,” as something that differs from seeking truth. Scientists are people. Our work, while providing a very useful way of knowing, does not enable us to find any absolute “truths” (Gleiser 2021) and, even if we do not write about it in our publications, our work is shaped by our experiences, including what questions we ask, how we interpret our observations, how we present our data, etc. People who study science have long challenged the notion of science as “neutral” and have examined how it is shaped by power (Whooley 2017).

Some scientists worry that if science is shown to have values, as all knowledge does, then it can be dismissed as “political” (Ottinger 2015). These scientists try to fight politicization by emphasizing their objectivity and neutrality. They try to provide people with more scientific information, without fully understanding that people interpret this information through their own cultural lenses. As debates over the science of climate change have shown, funded disinformation campaigns can politicize even the most “neutral” science. To me, this approach – trying to avoid being perceived as having values – is not working. It keeps us from having a more meaningful discussion of how our rigorous research has led us to holding certain policy views (as we have seen with the March for Science and Scientists Rebellion movements).

Why is this important?

I believe science is important because it can help us to identify our most critical global social and environmental problems, develop solutions to these problems, and then assess these solutions. In my opinion, a scientist’s role should not only be to do science, but to work to democratize science. In other words, I think science should be in the hands of the people. As written by Guston, democratizing science means:

Creating institutions and practices that fully incorporate principles of accessibility, transparency, and accountability. It means considering the societal outcomes of research at least as attentively as the scientific and technological outputs. It means insisting that in addition to being rigorous, science be popular, relevant, and participatory (2004:25-26).

As scientists, we are currently engaged in a collective activity of producing scientific knowledge. We can learn even more when people from many communities are involved in this process. There are already many scholars doing incredible work on this front (e.g., community-based participatory research). We need to consider how people’s values shape the knowledge they produce, how values shape how scientific knowledge is consumed, and how we can better share our scientific tools so that communities can answer their own most pressing questions. We have our work cut out for us.


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