Almost every scientist recognises this picture. Having devoted much of their lives to perform research on a specific issue, but not being able to get the message outside the academic walls (and it’s not only the government that’s ‘out there’). This holds for the more fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, like climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss, financial-economic crisis, and the current corona pandemic.
Of course, many scientists are to be blamed as well. Being so caught up in their own scientific square centimetre, they are unable to communicate the main message of their research to others. Stimulated by the perverse publication system that only accounts for peer-reviewed publications (and not so much for more understandable messages), leaves people outside academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.
But still. Isn’t it funny, that a society that pays lots of money to universities and research centres, that does value teaching and research done at these places highly, then dismisses results of these institutes if it is not ‘handy’, and perhaps a little too vague?
Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, focusing on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government, and the civil society. Not so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the earlier mentioned ‘complex societal issues’ humanity faces today. The idea behind this is that we all need to work together in order to address sustainability challenges and develop real solution patterns.
Well, that’s a step in the right direction. However, being good scientists, this idea of ‘sustainability science’ is becoming formalised rapidly. And – although classified by concepts such as post-normal, mode-2, triple helix, and other science paradigms – it still are ‘scientific’ classifications. With other words, it is being ‘bounded’ by similar rules that apply to other sciences as well.
From a scientific point of view, this is fine. But what about the point of view of moving forward to a more sustainable world? Does this not oblige scientists to take more responsibility, especially at times when many signals in nature and society are red? Or do we (scientists) continue to discuss the rules under which ‘sustainability science’ needs to be operated? Rules that probably will be ‘dismissed’ by the other stakeholders if it suits their purpose?
It is about time for many (more) scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the ‘science part’), to promote, impede, or direct societal change (the ‘activist part’). Scientivism can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, to economic activism, such as boycotts, sit-ins etc. Scientivists are not afraid of interfering with legitimized procedures and official politics when science shows this would be needed.
On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used into social discourses and in the media. This might lead to situations where, for instance, researchers find themselves unwittingly “supporting” an application of the generated knowledge they might strongly disagree with.
It is, therefore, not a ‘job’ (as for most of us ‘being a scientist’ is), but rather an ‘attitude’. An attitude that may be urgently to move forward to a more sustainable society. As in this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak, there are no reasons not to join…unless you do not have that attitude…
(Published earlier (in 2012) by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans)
See also (in Dutch): Een taxonomie van de wetenschapsactivist and The meaning of academia in times of environmental crisis.