Scientivists urgently needed!

“Does trying to move to a more sustainable world oblige scientists to take more responsibility?”

Almost every scientist recognises this picture, having devoted much of their lives to performing 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 fundamental sciences, but even more so for research on more complex issues, such as climate change, poverty, biodiversity loss and the financial-economic crisis.

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), people are locked outside of academia with only scientific papers. Not very useful in the public arena.

But still. Isn’t it funny that a society pays lots of money to universities and research centres, values teaching and research done at these places highly, but then dismisses results of these institutes if they are not “convenient”, or perhaps a little too vague?

Academia has responded through the initiation of new fields of research, such as sustainability science, which focuses on research collaborations among scientists from different disciplines and non-academic stakeholders from business, government and civil society. This change has not happened so much for the fundamental sciences, but for the aforementioned “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 one 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 – these are still “scientific” classifications. In other words, it is being “bound” by similar rules that apply to other sciences.

“Isn’ it funny that a society… values research highly, but then dismisses results if they are not convenient…?”


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 other stakeholders, if it suits their purpose.

It is time for many more scientists to become scientivists. Scientivists are people that are engaged in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge (the “science part”), yet they also want 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 legitimised procedures and official politics when science shows that it is needed.

[Being a scientivist] is not a job, but rather an attitude.

On the other hand, scientivists must be aware that their actions may increase the risk of scientific results inappropriately being used in 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 – which they actually 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 required to move forward to a more sustainable society. In this era of social media, opportunities for scientivists will increase as we speak; there are no reasons not to join.

This is a guest post by Pim Martens, which also appeared on his blog. You can view the original here.

Pim Martens holds the chair “Global Dynamics and Sustainable Development” at Maastricht and Leuphana University, The Netherlands, and is an honorary professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is also Director of the International Centre for Integrated Assessment and Sustainable Development (ICIS) and the Academic Director of the Maastricht University Graduate School of Sustainability Science (MUST).

Pim is a co-editor of the book The Social and Behavioural Aspects of Climate Change. Buy it direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive a 30% discount off hardback and 10% off the PDF version. Just use voucher code sbacc298 at the checkout.

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