Scientivists urgently needed!

Guest post by Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans

(Pim Martens is Professor of Global Dynamics & Sustainable Development, Maastricht University, Jan Rotmans is Professor in Transitions and Transition Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam)

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 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), 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…


3 thoughts on “Scientivists urgently needed!

  1. Nice post! Maybe dont fall into the ‘scientivist’ category but ‘we’ (I refer to RO – my generation) grow up while reading Gerald Durrell, Konrad Lorenz and others. Great impact – as kids we started to have fish,in aquarium, started to be interested in nature etc. Later, after 1989 (fall of communism) we look to Discovery Channel (which since then by the way have the ‘Discovery Science’ – I am big fan!) Animal Planet and other newly accesible channels about people and nature.

    I think we have reasons to be optimistic. Even in RO kids are more nature friendly now than 12 years ago (I teached 11 years there!) and there are some signs that the broad ‘basin’ called society is prepared to ‘eco’ change.

    However, the basin is still not large and deep enough to select the proper politicians and institutions. BUT I am optimistic still: more green movements and green things on the flag of politisians now tha 20 years ago in RO. Not extremely much (so – still place for better…) but there is a sign. Not to mention about the many NGO`s which make an excellent job for environment – with many failures too…but lets look beyond the details and see the scope, goals and visions.

    Maybe it is not scientivism what I mentioned but all are positive signals which should give us (some) hope.

    In the other hand: we are scientists, before all. I can agree with those views who says that not everything should be commestible for everyday people. Although, again, if people want to find out what a thing (no matter how abstract it can be) they still can search on the internet…

  2. Pingback: If scientivists are truly needed — what should they be doing? | Ideas for Sustainability

  3. Pingback: Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe | Ideas for Sustainability

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