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The presence of scientific evidence in a message requesting comment about pending regulations gives activists a slight boost to take action, but tends to decrease the willingness for scientists to comment. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Scientific evidence boosts action for activists, decreases action for scientists

Posted on May 23, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When a proposed policy has the backing of scientific evidence, it may boost the likelihood that activists will get involved with the issue. However, references to scientific evidence seem to dampen the activism of scientific experts, according to researchers.

In a study, when the researchers added a reference to peer-reviewed, scientific evidence in an email about environmental policy, it increased the likelihood that an activist would click on a “take action” link by about 1 percent. However, that same science-backed email lowered the chance that scientific policy experts would take the same action by a little over 4 percent.

Understanding how to better promote activism on policies is particularly important for regulators because most federal policies are enacted not by elected officials, but through regulations developed by unelected government employees, said Desmarais. Currently, citizens can comment on all regulations being proposed by the U.S. federal government online, he added.

“One of the clearest ways that regulators can signal that they are creating expert policies is to reference scientific research as evidence for the policy that they are making,” said Desmarais, who worked with Carisa Bergner, lead author of the study, formerly a doctoral student and research assistant at Penn State and currently a statistician and research analyst at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and John A. Hird, professor of political science and dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The researchers, who reported their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, teamed up with a well-known, national-policy advocacy organization focused on science and technology issues. The organization sends out emails about these issues to its 460,000 members. The email list is broken into two groups: an activists list that includes the broad membership, and an experts list, which includes scientists, engineers, health professionals and other technical experts.

The organization, in collaboration with the researchers, sent an email message to list members asking them to support a recent proposal to revise an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation on accidental spills at chemical facilities. In one message, the organization mentioned that the revision was supported by a study from a leading health journal. A second email did not contain specific information about the scientific journal, but contained a general reference to support from peer-reviewed scientific studies. In the third condition, the email contained no reference to either the journal, or peer-reviewed studies.

A button was included in each email that encouraged readers to, “take action.” If the readers clicked the button, they were taken to a website that would accept comments to the EPA.

If the member was on both lists, the organization only sent one email to the member.

The reason behind the experts’ decrease in activism is a bit of a scientific mystery, according to Bruce Desmarais, associate professor of political science and the Monica DeGrandis-McCourtney Early Career Professor in Political Science, Penn State and an Institute of CyberScience co-hire.

“Our research design doesn’t exactly tell us why it had this effect,” said Desmarais. “Two possibilities are that we didn’t reference the right science in the email, or that they became distracted by the reference to scientific expertise and perhaps forgot the main point of the email.”

Desmarais said that despite the puzzling result among the expert group, it is too early to say whether this is a troubling trend.

“Broadly speaking, I don’t find it troubling,” said Desmarais. “First, people who are on the activist list sign up to be part of that list because they want to act on the part of what the organization is encouraging, so I don’t think it’s puzzling that we find that those in the activists are, on average, more responsive to the encouragement than those in the expert group. As to the question about why are the expert group not responding to treatments of referencing scientific research, the results are too preliminary for us to say that this is a troubling result.”

Further study could focus on the reasons why scientific evidence does not motivate action from scientific experts, according to Desmarais. Researchers could, for example, refer to other scientific journals that may be more relevant to the scientists and see if that inspires more activism on the part of the experts.

The National Science Foundation supported this work.


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