Naomi Oreskes: The Scientist as Sentinel – a Talk at the 2017 AAAS Meeting

At this year’s AAAS meeting Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, gave one of the meeting’s most inspirational talks; “The Scientist as Sentinel.” This title is in itself an interesting idea. If we think about the definition of sentinel, which is “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch,” we may wonder what it is that we should be protecting – science itself, our own right to speak up for science, or something else? And how do we stand up for our cause in a way that will matter to political leaders or other audiences?

The sentinel problem

Dr. Oreskes asked the question of whether scientists should “do their work and leave it to others to communicate it, or raise their voice about issues they see?” As an activist myself, my first reaction is that we should speak up and stand up for science if we want it to continue in this country. But there are nuances to this point that we should consider. Dr. Oreskes asked very bluntly “Should we speak up? If so, how strongly? Should we permit ourselves to sound alarmed?” These points are worth considering in terms of how we should communicate our message, and how to this carefully and thoughtfully. This includes thinking about the tone used when talking about science – what sort of response do we want to elicit?

One of the potential issues with having scientists speak up for a certain issue is they may not want to be the first ones to do so. Dr. Oreskes encourages us by saying that “leading scientists of a previous generation have [already] been acting as sentinels, calling attention to issues that have not yet been publicly recognized.” Therefore, we can and must do the same. While scientists may be reluctant to reach out to political leaders, Dr. Oreskes tells her own story that reaching out to political leaders was a positive experience in that they were “receptive to being made aware of the issues.” This is an encouraging first step to changing their perception about science.

Another question is, if a scientist wants to speak up, what is it that they should raise their voice about, and whether that should be not only “about problems, but also about solutions?” While offering solutions seems like a reasonable strategy, some scientists are worried that this practice will “politicize [their] science” and in addition “blur the boundary between science and policy.” Therefore, even though science is political, scientists are afraid to cross the line into policy, and prefer to “let facts speak for themselves.” This way of thinking is a clear barrier to speaking out about important issues, as facts do not speak for themselves.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers in this regard is that scientists believe they are only meant to do the work and that it is “someone else’s job” to speak up for science, according to Dr. Oreskes. But in reality, scientists should play a more public role in talking about science. Potential reasons offered by Dr. Oreskes as to why scientists are reluctant to speak up about science are: 1) fear of losing credibility (although, as she states, we must think more deeply about what this means); 2) inability to see the value in speaking up or the relevance to their work (especially if defending an issue in another field); or 3) the belief that an evidence-based finding is convincing enough and need not be defended in public.

A common thread

According to Dr. Oreskes, there is a circular argument in that scientists may end up being attacked for the very reason of doing science, as shown in the slide. For example, doing science will likely lead to discovering “a serious social problem” often of broad nature (such as climate change or ozone depletion for example). Therefore, finding solutions to these problems by scientists will likely require “some sort of governmental action,” and there are those who do not want this sort of action. They will therefore “reject the science and attack the scientists themselves” instead of focusing on the actual problem, which is clearly not the best course of action.

Crucial point

To the issue of attacking scientists, Dr. Oreskes brings up a crucial point that, when scientists spoke up, they were not attacked because they had “crossed the line into policy,” but because their “scientific research had revealed or affirmed serious problems.” Therefore perhaps it is these problems that society has trouble acknowledging and dealing with, and not the scientists themselves. As a consequence, scientists who spoke up were “not attacked because they spoke out in public, they became public figures because they were attacked,” according to Dr. Oreskes. This is an encouraging message in that attacks on science (if we can call them that) can motivate scientists to speak up, and those who do so may become important figures who could ultimately change society’s perception about a particular issue. But, as the talk by Dr. Oreskes and this entire post show, someone needs to be the first to speak up for their issue of interest, and it is our duty to speak up for science and for our profession as scientists.

This post is part of a series of articles by guest blogger Adriana Bankston, where she will look back at workshops from the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Boston.


Adriana Bankston is a policy activist at Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization representing junior scientists, through grassroots advocacy, to promote positive systemic change to the way we do science. Her goals are to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the current scientific system. She can be reached via LinkedIn or on Twitter.

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