Should researchers be honest brokers or advocates?

By John Callewaert

John Callewaert (biography)

When to advocate and when to be an honest broker is a question that deserves serious attention by those working on collaborative and engaged research initiatives. In my role as the Integrated Assessment director at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute I facilitate a wide array of collaborative research efforts. For most of our initiatives we strive to work within an honest broker frame. Following the work of Pielke (2007), the honest broker engages in decision-making by clarifying and sometimes expanding the scope of choice to decision-makers. Our recent analysis of options for High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan[1] (fracking) and outlining sustainability goals for our Ann Arbor campus[2] are two examples which involved teams of faculty, students, practitioners and decision-makers.

The honest broker approach was particularly important for the project on fracking given the polarized views that can sometimes be associated with this topic. Through carefully developing our plans, working with a diverse advisory committee, seeking broad public input, being fully transparent about funding, and employing conflict of interest and peer review protocols, we were able to develop a resource that was praised by both state regulators and environmental organizations[3]. For some critics, though, the fact that we are a public institution which receives state funding makes it impossible for us to effectively review state policy and actions as the potential risk to funding would inevitably constrain our analyses. Our constant informal test during these times was that if all of our partners (state, industry, and environmental organizations) were somewhat critical of our work then we were probably operating in a good space.

The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan[4] has prompted new questions for me about whether the honest broker approach is sufficient. Some of the most challenging insights have come from Mark Edwards[5], the Virginia Tech professor whose work in Flint and elsewhere has exposed serious failures of our environmental regulations, decision-makers, and public science. While some have questioned the fact that it was a Virginia Tech researcher and his team who did much of the important work on exposing the lead problems in Flint[6] and not someone from one of the Michigan colleges or universities, I personally think it was vitally important that someone with his expertise and experience was able to get to the facts and advocate for the people of Flint. Much work still needs to be done in Flint and University of Michigan students, faculty, and staff are working on a range of efforts in partnership with the community[7].

So how can we decide when to be an honest broker and when to be an advocate? Some have called for an entire reworking of the research process and making results available much more quickly by posting online[8] and others call for more direct academic engagement in public and political discourse[9]. I think one of the most effective ways is to include frequent and meaningful opportunities for public engagement in our work. This not only allows opportunities to identify gaps but also ensures that the work is shared broadly and utilized readily by a wide range of groups.

Pielke, R. A. Jr., (2007). The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.


  1. Graham Sustainability Institute. (2015). Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan: Integrated Assessment Final Report. University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, USA.
  2. Graham Sustainability Institute, Office of Campus Sustainability. (2011). Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment: Final Report. University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, USA.
  3. Erickson, J. (2015). U-M releases final report on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in Michigan. University of Michigan, Michigan News, 23 September 2015.
  4. Not Safe to Drink: A Special Michigan Radio Series. Michigan Radio (National Public Radio), Ann Arbor; Flint; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, December 2015.
  5. Kolowich., S. (2016). The Water Next Time: Professor Who Helped Expose Crisis in Flint Says Public Science Is Broken. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 February 2016.
  6. Kozlowski., K. (2016). UM declined to team with lead expert in Flint. The Detroit News, 18 February 2016.
  7. Flint Water. (n.d). Michigan Impact (Newsletter), University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, USA.
  8. Harmon, A. (2016). Handful of Biologists Went Rogue and Published Directly to Internet. New York Times, 15 March 2016.
  9. Hoffman, A., Ashworth, K., Dwelle, C., Goldberg, P., Henderson, A., Merlin, L., Muzyrya, Y., Simon, N-J., Taylor, V., Weisheit, C. and Wilson. S. (2015). Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse. Proceedings of the Michigan Meeting, May 2015. Michigan Publishing: Ann Arbor, USA.

Biography: In addition to his work with the Graham Institute, John Callewaert is a lecturer in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan (U-M) and a co-principal investigator for the Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program – a longitudinal study that assesses sustainability knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes across U-M students, faculty, and staff to inform educational programs and campus operations. John Callewaert serves as an advisory board member for The Integrated Assessment Society.

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