The role of scientists in public debate

facts-speakMonday Feb 6 2017, 9am – 5pm, Storey Hall, RMIT University

A one-day workshop for graduate students and early to mid career scientists in conservation and environmental research areas, who are interested in public engagement for practical and/or philosophical reasons. RSVP:

What are the bounds of being a scientist, and how will I know if I overstep them? Is advocacy at odds with being a good scientist? What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ model of engagement? Do we simply need more knowledge brokers and NGOs—is it unreasonable to expect scientists to be involved in public debate, as well as their day job? How is objectivity maintained in science, if scientists are people with values? 

We’re here to help with these questions! Dr Kristian Camilleri (History and Philosophy of Science, HPS); Associate Professor Fiona Fidler (BioScience|HPS); Dr Darrin Durant (HPS); The HPS Postgraduate Society; Dr Jenny Martin (BioScience); Dr Georgia Garrard (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science); Associate Professor Sarah Bekessy (RMIT, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science). We’ll also have a panel of media experts to take questions on the day.

Public engagement is something strongly encouraged by most universities, and there are many existing resources for effective science communication. However, most focus on expert information provision, where a scientist has some new knowledge that they wish to communicate to the public. Engagement advice typically focuses on news-style science communication; it less often deals with other forms of engagement, such as entering public debates or speaking out for or against new policy proposals. In those cases, the advice scientists receive often amounts to ‘separate the facts from your own personal values’, and ‘don’t speak outside your direct domain of expertise’. In practice, most scientists don’t know how to interpret that advice, or implicitly understand that it is impossible to follow. Underdeveloped guidelines, sometimes coupled with warnings from colleagues who have bad prior experiences, can be enough for scientists to withdraw from public engagement. We’d like to talk about that…

In this workshop we have two main goals. First, we want to find out from scientists, in their own words, what the dilemmas they encounter when contemplating engagement. Do scientists worry about their scientific credibility in the eyes of their peers, or the public, or both if they take a position in public debate on policy issues? Is it beyond the scope of their role of scientist to do this? These are thorny issues that we’ll tackle in a focus group style discussion (structured elicitation exercise) in the first session of workshop.

Second, we aim connect scientists with relevant expertise in philosophy and sociology of science, to help unpack some of the deeper conceptual issues underlying those dilemmas. We will explore questions like: How is objectivity maintained in science, if scientists are people with values?  What is the public’s perception of scientists, and how do they react to scientists who break the ‘honest broker’ or ‘information provision only’ model of engagement? After exploring these questions in the workshop, we will also discuss how to set up longer term peer-to-peer networks and online resources that take can take our workshop discussions to a broader audience.

Workshop program

9am                Intro (Fiona, Sarah)

9:15am           Background to our interest in engagement (Georgia)

9:30am           What are the dilemmas scientists face when contemplating engaging in debate and/or policy advocacy? Semi-structured elicitation exercise. (Fiona, Georgia, Sarah)


10:30am        Legitimate values in science, objectivity and the value-free ideal. Seminar, with Q&A. (Kristian)

11:30pm        Public perceptions: what the public expects of experts? Seminar, with Q&A. (Darrin)

12:30pm        LUNCH

1:15pm          Media interactions. Panel discussion with media experts.

2pm                Follow-up session on this morning’s elicitation exercise. What issues remain outstanding? What haven’t we addressed in our previous sessions? How else can philosophy and sociology of science help with these dilemmas? Discussion. (All)

3pm                Philosophy of Sc engagement network building. Discussion. (HPS postgrads)


3:30pm          Science engagement support (Jenny)

4pm                Workshop evaluation (Fiona)

Please contact Fiona Fidler ( for more information.


This workshop is supported by a University of Melbourne Engagement Grant.


About fidlerfm

Associate Professor ARC Future Fellow
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