Column: Science and politics can and should mix

Published May 1, 2019

With the end of this year's legislative session nearly here, thoughts will soon turn to what was accomplished, what wasn't and the top priorities for next year. Now is the time for legislators to employ the advice of experts in crafting their "off-season" solutions to a growing list of issues. Doing so will require experts to lend their voices and experience for developing policy solutions.

The 2019 session saw over 4,000 bills filed for many hot-button issues heavy on the minds of many Floridians, from Red Tide and algae pollution to voting rights, medical marijuana and guns in schools. At the same time, the governor has committed to a Blue-Green Algae Task Force, called for a historic $2.5 billion over the next four years for Everglades restoration and water protection efforts, created the Office of Environmental Accountability and Transparency, and on April 1, appointed the state's first chief science officer. Florida's full political attentions seem to have finally turned, in a serious and genuine way, to what many of us already knew: a clean and healthy environment is paramount to our health, security and our very identities as Floridians. Ensuring that legislative solutions are informed by the best available science will be the next hurdle to clear.

With serious commitments to science-based solutions from the highest levels of state government, the time is right for Floridians with experience and expertise to actively engage and help shape policy. As both scientists and citizens of the state, we believe that it's our professional, civic, and even moral responsibility to use our knowledge and experience to inform our decision-makers. It is a misconception to think that politicians don't care about or welcome input from scientists, or that they don't want data to inform decisions. There were several issues before the Legislature this session that required scientific guidance, where both data and expert testimony were often requested and clearly valued. Our political leaders set the agenda, but they can't be expected to be experts on every facet of the subjects underlying the issues. Scientists and other experts can, and should, help fill this gap. We can ensure that the best available science is used for policies that will determine the future of our society, economy, and environment for generations. It is not enough to just cross our fingers and hope for the best.

We likewise urge our state legislators to reach out to scientists from all fields across many institutions. There are opportunities for both sides — scientists and politicians — to better cultivate these much-needed relationships. Furthermore, we ask our fellow Floridians to urge their representatives to seek expert advice on all relevant issues. You can find your legislators by visiting the Florida Senate website and Florida House website. You can also request in-person meetings in your home district — you don't need to travel to Tallahassee to talk with those elected to work for you. A happy marriage of science and policy is not only needed, it's possible to address the many challenges before us.

Marcy Cockrell is a science policy fellow working in the state Capitol, and Matthew McCarthy is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science. Both earned their doctorates from the USF College of Marine Science.