Communicating Scientific Uncertainty: December 2016 Workshop

Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics: Getting from Strong Public Science to Sound Public Policy

December 5-6, 2016, Washington, DC 

With a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) organized and convened in December 2016 its third multidisciplinary workshop, Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics: Getting from Strong Public Science to Sound Public Policy. Around forty participants working in law, science and journalism continued to explore communication of scientific uncertainty on environmental and public health issues, and to discuss potential action. A majority of these participants had participated in earlier ELI-NSF workshops on the same subject in Fall 2014 and Spring 2016. The workshop agenda is available here and the workshop proceedings document is available here.

The workshop series’ stated goals remained: (1) to facilitate more effective cross-discipline communications by deepening participants’ understanding of the approaches their peers take to address scientific uncertainty, and the ethical and normative reasons underlying these approaches; (2) to promote more transparent and constructive debate on major environmental and public health issues by deepening understanding of the ethical and disciplinary constraints on scientific, legal, and media professionals charged with communicating scientific uncertainty; and (3) to bring the challenges in understanding and ethically communicating scientific uncertainty and potential solutions to the forefront through technical and non-technical presentations, peer-reviewed publication, and outputs for lay audiences. This event was the final workshop delivered pursuant to this grant.

Steering Committee. In October 2015, ELI staff convened a steering committee drawn from all three fields to advise on workshop design and help develop the invitation list. The committee included:

  • Mona Behl, Associate Director, Georgia Sea Grant, University of Georgia;
  • Leslie Carothers, former ELI President and a Visiting Scholar at ELI;
  • Jim Hilbert, Associate Professor, Mitchell Hamline School of Law;
  • Jay Odenbaugh, Professor of Philosophy, Lewis & Clark College;
  • Dave Poulson, Senior Associate Director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism,
  • Michigan State University; and
  • Bud Ward, Editor, Yale Climate Connections

Participants. With guidance from the steering committee, ELI again issued workshop invitations to a broad cross-section of scientists, lawyers, and journalists representing different sectors, perspectives, and regions of the country, with participants drawn roughly equally from each of the three professions. Participant biographies are available here.