Should Scientists Compromise? First, Define Your Terms

Lily Padula for The Chronicle

March 05, 2017

A few weeks after the November presidential election, I participated in a webinar on anticipated changes in federal research funding. Every administration brings with it a new message and new priorities, yet the high faculty turnout for the webinar suggested widespread concern with then-President-elect Donald Trump’s aversion to scientific consensus.

The webinar presenter was circumspect with respect to predictions. Nonetheless, some trends were ominous. Most telling was the suggestion that research on climate and environmental change was likely to be supported if we remained "agnostic" with respect to causes. This choice of words has stuck with me.

Perhaps that was the point.

Scientists are about to be tested. The test is simple to administer. In fact, it has already begun. If you haven’t taken it, don’t worry, it will only last a few seconds, much shorter than usual administrative requests. Exams will be collected immediately, scores returned anytime in the next four years, and the answers will be held in perpetuity.

Are you ready?

Q: Define the word compromise:

a) Settle a dispute by mutual concession,

b) Accept standards that are lower than is desirable,

c) Bring into disrepute or danger by indiscreet, foolish, or reckless behavior.

Pencils down.

Many of you probably chose option a), because most exams that we give (or take) have a single correct answer. Moreover, it’s the optimistic choice. But in fact, all three definitions are correct. So let’s move from definitions to choices, because understanding how scientists approach compromise will have consequences.

Scientists collect data, develop theories, and integrate these together to understand the natural world. The conclusions we reach are a result of the scientific method. If one of us thinks the Earth is flat and the other thinks it is round, we do not compromise and say that the Earth is shaped like a cylinder. Instead, we try to identify experiments and measurements that could discriminate between alternative hypotheses and let the data direct us both to the right answer.

Compromise does not seem to play an essential role in the practice of science nor in the scientific method. Nonetheless, compromise plays a larger role in deciding how best to support scientists, their work, and the translation of research findings into policies, technologies, and infrastructure to improve the human condition. Moreover, as has been shown repeatedly in efforts to manage the "commons," by compromising we can all be better off than had each of us decided to go it alone.

Despite potential benefits, mutual concession as a means to improve outcomes may appear less desirable in certain scenarios. Over 40 years ago, John Maynard Smith and George Price reasoned that many potential conflicts in the natural world are resolved by retreat when one animal perceives it is disadvantaged and could be injured. Animals may use and interpret signals as a proxy to avoid dangerous conflicts. This insight from evolutionary game theory is especially relevant to us now.

It is one thing to engage in a good-faith debate over the prioritization of distinct approaches to finding a cure for cancer or to enhancing the efficiency of alternative fuels. It is quite another to be targeted by a "mean tweet" from the president amplified by online threats, to find one’s work added to a congressional list of "wasteful research," or to see crucial discoveries scrubbed from government web pages and projects cut off from funding entirely. Who wants such a reaction? No one. Now, you see that option a) might not be such a good choice, after all. Instead, there appear to be quite rational reasons for individual scientists and professional organizations to reach for option b).

But option b) comes with a heavy cost. Not only is it unpleasant to compromise one’s standards, there are also consequences. How can we effectively mitigate against the effects of climate change if we are not willing to confront their causes? How can we protect the lives of newborn children vulnerable from otherwise preventable and potentially fatal diseases if we cannot advocate forcefully for vaccinations at clinically tested schedules? How can we forestall the end of the antibiotic era if we cannot study the basis by which bacteria and viruses evolve?

There is substantial evidence that the present administration would prefer that scientists choose option b). In the weeks after the inauguration, the Trump administration directed the removal of information, particularly related to climate change, from government websites and social-media accounts and enacted a gag order on governmental agencies. These decisions undermine efforts to understand and communicate how climate change affects food security, access to water, and the spread of disease. The recent pre-emptive cancellation of an international Climate and Health Summit to be held at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raises similar questions. What scientific paradigms have changed that would diminish the need for this kind of interface conference?

Scientists are respected members of society. The scientists I know and have worked with are committed to understand the complex world around us — from the hyperfast vibrations of molecules to the collective movement of cells to the inescapable march of cosmological time. They do so with passion and integrity. Yet if we choose to define compromise through weakening and lowering standards then we will have erased not only option a), but also option b), and, with time, arrived to where some would want us: option c), bringing ourselves, our profession, indeed our calling, into disrepute.

By their differences, the alternative definitions represent the essential choice facing scientists, professional organizations, and institutions. By our choices, we will decide what kind of science we intend to practice.

Despite the challenges ahead, I remain optimistic that scientists can reward the faith entrusted in us by our fellow citizens. We can do so by disregarding advice to remain "agnostic." We should not compromise if that means weakening standards or endangering our communities. Accepting such forms of compromise — whether actively or passively — is antithetical to our commonly held values.

Instead, we should insist that scientific research remain the cornerstone of efforts to cure disease, preserve our environment, and strengthen our economy and infrastructure. In doing so, scientists will continue to provide economic and social benefits through our research, education, and outreach, and remain an example of how to serve with principles, integrity, and purpose.

To commit to this path requires courage. It also requires concrete action, whether by convening canceled scientific meetings at nongovernmental venues (like the Climate and Health Summit), participating in a March for Science, or running for political office. More such actions will be needed by scientists and supporters alike in the months and years to come. Whatever their form, these actions should have a purpose: to ensure that science- and fact-based reasoning remains essential, not just to scientists, but to all.

Joshua S. Weitz is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The views expressed here represent those of the author.