Should scientists engage in policy or activism?

This year's CEE Annual Darwin Debate focus on the momentum of scientists' activism, inviting Richard Gregory and Tristram Wyatt to discuss what is best mode of action in the face climate crisis.
Published in Ecology & Evolution

Share this post

Choose a social network to share with, or copy the shortened URL to share elsewhere

This is a representation of how your post may appear on social media. The actual post will vary between social networks

Every year during this time of the year, I always wait for Darwin's birthday. You will still have your birthday celebrated far after you are not with the living anymore only if you are a prominent scientist like Charles Darwin. Also, this is more likely to happen in a society with a very long tradition of scientific enterprise such as the UK.

However, what does it mean to be a scientist in this time and age of climate crisis?

The Center for Ecology and Evolution decided to celebrate Darwin's birthday on the 28th of February 2023 continuing their tradition of hosting the annual debate, this time bringing up "Science, Policy, and Activism: The role of scientists as citizens in times of ecological and climate emergencies" at the Natural History Museum, London, UK. The Flett Theatre, where the debate was held, was almost full when the event started. I was shamefully late for five minutes and can only sit in the very back, and really just next to the aisle. Not many places left. People are really keen with this topic.

Event image

The Policy

After the organisers delivers their introduction, the debate started with Prof. Richard Gregory from RSPB talking about most of his works with the UK government. He introduced the wild bird indicators and the targets the government was making to ensure the biodiversity is not in decline anymore.

I viewed him as someone from "The Establishment" working within the system, and I personally have some irk every time the government said that they have an "ambitious" target to do things by some couple of years later. I do not think halting biodiversity decline by 10 years later is ambitious. I think that is the status quo since this issue was acknowledged by the first Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992: "do something by 10 years later".

To be fair, I admire the commitment he made to ensure biodiversity monitoring happened in the national level. I cannot imagine the parliament in my home country actually talking about bird species richness as an indicator. I was most intrigued by an essay he told us (written by John Wiens, titled 'Is monitoring a "dirty" word?'), about how scientists "viewed monitoring in disdain". He also correctly pointed out that targets has not been SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Timebound), which I was surprised to find was relatively recent in the government.

Working in the interface of science and policy advocate is a hard work. While I think people like him who works "inside the tent" are not doing enough, they have been doing a lot. In other words, our world is *that* much in trouble, doing a lot will always looks like not enough, is it not?

As many people working in the practical sides of things always said in many meetings around policy I have attended, he echoed the sentiment of "what gets measured gets done". I got the impression that that is what policy all about. He concluded his talk with scientist's position as someone who should be informing the best knowledge available to those in need.

The Activism

The next talk from the activism standpoint came from Dr. Tristram Wyatt who has been involved with the Extinction Rebellion as a scientist. He first introduced his works on pheromones and animal behaviour. He thought all of those amazing animals will be extinct within his students' lifetime, so he decided to join the activism part of the climate crisis. While the working on the insides is important, he did not think that is working so far. He showed the temperature rising graph annotated with the many international meeting happened since 1980s. "It is as if those meetings were never happened!" he said.

I have personally been interested on scientist activism but also have worries and skepticism on it. How if it decreases public trust on me as a scientists for "being too political"? Also, I cannot afford being arrested as I have caring responsibility, what can I do to support?

He really touched that worry in everyone's mind when he said, "Being an activist as a scientist is a bit like coming out, really," 

Apparently, public's trust actually increasing when they saw scientist were doing activism. The idea was, public trust scientists are the people who know what they are doing, so going to protest is still within the expected character. Also, he invited everyone to join in however way they can as the cost of being arrested is not the same for everyone, especially if you are a minority group. "We have moved more from about being arrested and more to how to get the protest talked about by everyone," he said. 

His talks was filled with inspirational quotes from many important people in the activism, showing how activism was working despite being unpopular when it happened, and many interesting stories behind the scene of notable scientist fights again the lobbyist and policy makers. He appropriately concluded his talk with an invitation from Extinction Rebellion at 21-24 April 2023 to join scientists and many others to demand change in front of the UK Parliament.

The event was followed by a Q and A session from the audience where we dig deeper on the points they mentioned in their talks. I unfortunately did not follow most of it as I was too busy with my mind after hearing all those amazing stuffs. It is apparent that a lot of people now interested on joining the activism sides and asking about many things regarding that.

The Conclusion?

It has been a very great Darwin Debate, picking on the correct issue on the right momentum within the UK. In the world where doing a lot is not enough, we need to focus on doing things that matters most, within our best capacity. It is a great moment to reflect. What am I good at? Given this and that available opportunity, where I can make the most of my skills?

If you are interested on what to do next, have a look on the resources of this year's Darwin Debate, conveniently put in this link tree:

If you are there and there are any substantial points of the debates that I missed, feel free to comment and add!

Please sign in or register for FREE

If you are a registered user on Research Communities by Springer Nature, please sign in

Subscribe to the Topic

Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Ecology