“Preach the gospel…and if necessary, use words.” – Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

Want to read something interesting and timely? Check out Judith Curry’s latest post in Climate, Etc., entitled Refocusing the debate about advocacy. She’s excerpting from an article to be published in Conservation Biology, and cites it thus: Scott, J Michael, & Rachlow, Janet L. (2011). Refocusing the debate about advocacy. Conservation Biology, 25(1), 1-3. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01629.x

As Ms. Curry notes, Scott and Rachlow have made some thoughtful additions to an important discussion, one that concerns all of us operating at the intersection of science and society. They focus particularly on the link between selective sharing of information and advocacy. They suggest that the term resonates with most of us like the word “art;” we might have trouble giving a crisp definition, but we think we know it when we see it. We can all look forward to seeing the fuller publication in its entirety.

Here’s the definition Dictionary.Com gives us (noun, plural ad·vo·ca·cies).

the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal: He was known for his advocacy of states’ rights.

(see also the Dictionary.Com material under advocate (both noun and verb)

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (remember such hard-bound volumes?) has a slightly different take:

advocacy:  n.   the act or process of advocating: support.

advocate: n.    1. one that pleads the cause of another.

2. one that defends or maintains a cause or proposal.

advocate. vt.   to plead in favor of. syn. see support

(the origins… ad vocare… seem to mean to “call to” or to “summon”)


You’ve probably caught several points already, just from these general definitions.

  1. By these lights, you and I and most everyone we know advocates about one cause or idea or another. Someone without a cause, like love or justice, or honor, or integrity? Hard to find.Here at AMS, we’re probably thought to plead general causes, such as the importance of managing Earth’s food, energy, and water resources effectively; protecting the environment, and the ecosystem services we depend on; and building resilience to natural hazards ranging from winter storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes, to floods, and droughts and wildfire. We point out the essential importance of Earth observations, science, and services to such ends. We support STEM education. Better opportunity for governments, the private sector, and university researchers to collaborate toward these goals, both domestically and internationally. We argue that Earth observations, science, and services should not be pursued just for the sake of knowledge, but rather for societal benefit, in its broadest, most enduring, and best sense. These and other positions are explained more fully in AMS statements developed by our Council, and available on the AMS website here.
  2. However, we’re not open to advocating for everything and anything, willy-nilly. We don’t advocate for specific federal budget line items, and we don’t advocate for specific as opposed to general positions. The former proscription/restraint stems from conflict-of-interest restrictions on our federal AMS member/leaders. [Wouldn’t be a good idea in any case.]The latter stems from the diversity of viewpoints, interests, goals and needs among our members. You could see this in the range of reactions to the recent AMS statement on climate change, but that’s only one of numerous examples. Think public-sector versus private sector, small firm versus big multi-national; U.S. versus international, small forecast service business versus aerospace company, research university versus community college; and on and on. “Versus?” In every case, “versus” has proved to be a false choice/poor framing, for those under the AMS tent.
  3. Note that much of the dictionary material emphasizes speaking on behalf of or supporting another. There’s a bit of a sense of disinterest, selflessness, perhaps even a hint of nobility here as opposed to self-interest, self-promotion, self aggrandizement… But very rare to ever see such in a pure form, isn’t it?
  4. There’s also some sense of “support” as in say action or modeled behavior as opposed to words per se. Support can take many forms. With apologies to Saint Francis of Assisi, we might well say “Advocate…and if necessary, use words.”

Some closing reflections:

– Advocacy is a word that’s regrettably been corrupted by overuse and misuse. When we hear the word today, especially here in the Washington DC area, most of us think not just of pleading, but special pleading, not interest in the welfare of others but self-interest.

– Washington suffers from advocacy fatigue. Do you have something the world wants? The slightest bit of power or the most nominal influence? Here in DC you can count on a line of people outside your door with a list of reasons why they deserve your special favor. It’s like driving through the streets of some megacity slum…but those aren’t urchins throwing themselves on your windshield. They’re folks in three-piece suits and Gucci shoes, wielding powerpoints on iPads.

– Perhaps we might all do well to aspire to something which might be called Advocacy Version 3.0:

advocacy 1.0 original meaning

advocacy 2.0 (folks having lost their way) propounding for mere self-interest, and seeking this end by escalating bankrupt approaches: louder, media blitzing, deliberate blurring of the lines separating scientific findings from policy prescriptions; Scott and Rachlow’s selective sharing of information…

advocacy 3.0 going back to the original meaning, but doing more…going beyond rhetoric to a range of supportive actions (including but not limited to workshops, studies, small projects, etc.), actions that build the trust and common interest necessary to make the most effective use of science..

– science and professional societies might set as their aim not advocacy per se but rather (like those BASF commercials)  making effective advocacy possible. By that I mean that professional societies might strive to provide a basis of facts, knowledge, and understanding that serve to bound community discussions about policy options, helping all parties remain more civil; rendering them more likely to identify, develop consensus, etc. We can and should build the capacity of the larger society of which we’re a part. We should educate, equip all the players…scientists, policymakers, journalists, educators, public…to more effectively play their respective parts.]

A final note: this is scratchwork. Your thoughts and inputs are always welcome, but especially on this topic.

Let me advocate that you take time to share.

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2 Responses to Advocacy

  1. James Correia Jr says:

    -I like the idea you present last of building a better advocacy environment. create better tools and ways of knowing what it would be like to make X decision to support programs. How can we support broader science objectives if we don’t know how to properly align different projects and get more out of the dollars invested in science?

    -I also think that educating is not advocating; advocating is not educating.

    -An advocate should also be keenly aware of the processes that lead to poor vision, strategies, and tactics. Austere budgets is but one example where slim budgets paired with oversold success lead to budget trimming, because smaller budgets squeeze out better stuff. But not the best stuff, just the stuff you were able to build until they cut your budget.

    -We really have to have advocate for budget “climate” rather than budget “weather”. What are the time horizons for investments and return on investments, in both dollars, and intangibles (e.g. educational opportunities provided, enhancement of the workforce, innovation that resulted, imagination and inspiration)? This speaks directly to providing better information to help decision makers make informed decisions.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, James…for adding to the thought process, and for a range of ideas. I like all of them but particularly your idea of advocating for budget “climate” versus “weather.”

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