November 2009

Not Playing Devil’s Advocate


The theme of this issue of ASBMB Today is advocacy, and that’s one subject about which I feel strongly. (OK, I admit I feel strongly about lots of subjects, but, trust me, this is one of them.) My feelings, however, are ambivalent, so I think I should explain them.


I always have been deeply suspicious of what are often referred to as “activists.” It’s not because I don’t admire their passion. I do. It’s also not necessarily because I don’t share their views. I often do. What I’m suspicious of is what their advocacy does to their judgment on other issues. It’s been my experience that people who devote most of their time and effort to one thing frequently view all things through the lens of that single issue. And I don’t think that you can get a clear view of the whole world through one, possibly distorting, lens.

It’s sort of like being a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk conservative. If your first reaction to any problem or question is driven by a set of values or beliefs that may not apply in that particular situation, you are unlikely to come up with a good answer or make a good decision.

Now, as it happens, these considerations are of some importance to a scientific society. It’s pretty easy for an organization devoted to furthering the interests of a group of professionals to focus on the topic on which the group itself is most concerned. In the case of a society whose membership is composed largely of academic biochemists, that one issue would be federal support for basic research.

Before I go on, let me make something clear: Increasing federal support for basic research is very important to me personally, and I believe it is an issue that must be important to the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology as well. And, of course, it is.

But it cannot be the only issue. If that were the case, we would be in danger of seeing everything through that particular distorting lens: If it increases federal support for basic research, it must be good, and we must advocate for it; if it threatens that support in any way, it must be bad, and we must oppose it. That sort of thinking can turn us into very bad advocates for the interests of our members — or devil’s advocates, if you will.

For a concrete example, consider the question of evaluating and possibly discontinuing some federally funded scientific programs. If our primary mission was to increase funding, we should be against any such quality control because it might send a message to Congress that not all research dollars are well spent, and that could hurt the chances for increases. Yet, I believe, in the name of good science and responsible scientific citizenship, there may be times when we need to support the critical evaluation and possible termination of some programs because spending scientific research funds wisely ought to be just as important to us as getting more of them. If we don’t feel that way, we are just a group of lobbyists with questionable integrity.

That’s a pretty severe example, but there are subtler ones that are worth pointing out. If the be-all and end-all of this organization is to increase grant dollars, where is the time and attention we should be devoting to our industrial members, whose concerns are likely to be very different? Advocating with the public on behalf of the biotech or pharmaceutical industries, when the cause is right, might be seen as threatening our “pure” academic reputation and thereby weakening our effectiveness in getting those basic research funds increased. But, if it’s the right thing to do, I think we have to do it.

What I’m trying to say is that any organization that is as heterogeneous as ASBMB cannot focus all of its advocacy efforts in one direction. If we are to be engaged with the world, we need to take a broad view. We need to worry about all of the things that concern our members. We must not become knee-jerk supporters, or apologists, for any cause or position. We have to think things through.

At ASBMB, that process of deliberation and debate is the chief responsibility of the Public Affairs Advisory Committee, although other committees certainly can play significant roles. Matters may be brought before that committee by members of ASBMB staff, by members of the committee itself, by the ASBMB president and by regular members of the society. Once the committee has decided on a position or course of action, what happens next depends on the timing. If urgent action is not required, we will ask the ASBMB Council to give its views on the committee’s recommendation. If something has to be done quickly, I may need to approve — or, rarely, veto — immediate action as president and seek the approval (or possibly the forgiveness) of the Council later. In cases where plenty of time is available, we may want to put the cases to the entire society by canvassing members for their views.

The purpose of these policies is, as I have said, to prevent us from making bad decisions because we are focused too narrowly. I think it has worked pretty well for the most part. But, I worry that, even with our good intentions, we may not be effective advocates for many of the things that matter to our membership if that membership is silent.

This brings me to the other side of my ambivalent attitude toward advocacy: my passionate belief that it’s really important. But, it can’t just be important to me, or to the Council or to our staff or to our various committees. It has to be important to you, too.

I know that disengaging from the turmoil, politics and strident bickering of the “real world” is one of the attractions that a life in science has for many of our members. I used to feel that way myself. But I came to believe that it’s a mistake for that detachment to be the hallmark of a scientist. In the Declaration of Independence are words that always have resonated with me:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

What the Founding Fathers of the United States were saying is that, when something needs to be changed, those who have the ability to do something about it also have the responsibility to do something about it. And scientists are, as a group, among the most able citizens of any country. So, when scientists hide in their ivory towers, society becomes robbed of some of its best advocates.

So, I want to urge all of you not just to get involved in local institutions, like your school boards and your town governments (but I really hope you are or will), but also to help us be effective advocates for you by telling us what you think are the important national and international issues that ASBMB needs to worry about. It isn’t so much that we need you to tell us what to do — although we certainly welcome such advice — but what we do need, desperately, is for you to tell us what things in the world of science and scientists matter to you. And if you want to be engaged at the national level, to have your advocacy playing out on a larger stage, as it were, then consider making ASBMB the vehicle for that engagement. Run for Council, or tell us of your interest in being on our committees or work with us when we visit the National Institutes of Health or the Hill. The first step in a greater involvement with science and society could be a greater evolvement with this society. We’d love that.

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