Defining Science Application

Bill Dennison ·
13 April 2010
Applying Science | 

Scholarship Reconsidered

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science has embraced the concept of scholarship defined as discovery, integration, application and teaching (Boyer, 1990). Discovery can be defined as learning new things; integration as putting this learning into a knowledge context; application as using this knowledge; teaching as transferring this knowledge to others. The Integration and Application Network was created to focus on the integration and application components of scholarship. Discovery and teaching are the more easily recognizable components to those both inside and outside academia, and various metrics have been created to assess discovery (e.g., peer review publications, impact factors, grantsmanship) and teaching (e.g., course loads, student evaluations, new course creation, mentoring graduate students). Integration, defined by Boyer is the scholarship of a) giving meaning to isolated facts, b) putting them into perspective, c) making connections across disciplines, d) placing the specialties in larger context, and e) illuminating data in a revealing way (often educating nonspecialists). The definition of application by Boyer was less clear, and three questions were posed to illustrate application: 1) How can knowledge be applied to consequential problems?, 2) How can it be helpful to individuals as well as institutions?, 3) Can social problems themselves define an agenda for scholarly investigation? The other point made by Boyer was the distinction between citizenship activities (e.g., serving on committees, advising students, administrative functions) which are classed as 'doing good things' vs. the scholarship associated with an individual's field of expertise that is applied to effect change. While these questions and distinctions are helpful, the actual definition of what constitutes the scholarship of application and how to assess it are left somewhat nebulous. However, stimulated by Boyer, there have been various subsequent efforts to explore these tenets of scholarship, including conferences, books and websites. The attempt here will be to define the scholarship of application, specifically science application. A future treatment will be focused on ways to evaluate and assess science application.

The Honest Broker

Science application can be defined as the use of science to inform public debate and effect behavior change. Effective communication of science is necessary to inform public debate and effect behavior change, and this requires a willingness to communicate to audiences beyond peer scientists. The two components of this definition reflect the need to a) communicate effectively in a public forum so as to inform public debate and b) provide relevant information in a timely manner so that it can result in behavior change, either through regulatory or incentive based initiatives. Put more simply, it is using science to make a difference—choosing issues that society does (or should) care about and in which a behavior change can result in positive outcomes. With regard to environmental issues, this solution based approach of science application can be viewed as environmental advocacy. Environmental advocacy is the attempt to change behavior through legislation or education, and science is often used for advocacy purposes. However, the definition of science application presented here attempts to avoid direct issue advocacy—the role of the scientist in science application is not to 'cherry-pick' scientific data to argue a specific policy or legislative act, rather to present the scientific evidence with levels of uncertainty and with an explicit treatment of assumptions. Scientists can act in advocacy roles, as can any other stakeholder or citizen, however it is important to declare this as a separate and different role than serving as an 'honest broker of policy alternatives' as defined by Pielke (2007).

An excellent recent case study of science application illustrates the use of science informing public debate and effecting behavior change. Today, (April 13, 2010) UMCES President Don Boesch awarded Dr. Margaret Palmer the President's Award for Excellence in Science Application for her work on mountain top mining impacts. Margaret led a group of scientists who investigated the environmental impacts of Appalachian mountaintop mining on streams, rivers and on the people living in these areas. They summarized their findings in a paper “Mountaintop Mining Consequences” published on Jan. 8, 2010 in the scientific journal Science. Chris Conner, the UMCES media guru, was able to organize a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. and a variety of newspaper, magazine and television/radio spots were generated, based on the press conference (see ClimateScienceWatch blog). Fortunately, Stephen Colbert from the Comedy Channel, was listening to National Public Radio when the story ran, and Margaret was contacted to appear on the Colbert Report. She and Chris traveled to New York City for the filming and the resulting Jan. 18, 2010 production was hilarious but also served as a powerful indictment for existing practices. On April 1, 2010, Lisa Jackson, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, invoked the Clean Water Act, specifically, the cumulative unacceptable adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem, in response to a large West Virginia mountaintop mine, Spruce 1. This represents a significant shift in the way mountaintop mining has been treated by the federal government. This example of a) studying an important societal issue, b) synthesizing the scientific data and publishing in a high profile journal, c) effectively communicating the findings widely to audiences beyond peer scientists, and d) effectively changing the public debate and effecting behavior change in the federal government (and consequently, the mining industry) is an excellent example of science application. This science application example was initiated with scientific leadership (Margaret Palmer), promoted with a good communication effort (Chris Conner), and implemented by a progressive government response (Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator). Not all science application efforts will have each step so closely linked with such positive and direct outcomes, but this example serves to illustrate that the key elements of leadership (both scientific and political) and effective communication are needed for science application.


Boyer, Ernest L. (1997) Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton University Press, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. 147 pp.

Pielke, Roger, Jr. (2007) The honest broker: Making sense of science in policy and politics. Cambridge University Press. 188 pp.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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