If scientivists are truly needed — what should they be doing?

By Joern Fischer

As Pim Martens and Jan Rotmans pointed out in the previous guest post, the old approach of “just providing the facts” is failing to get the simple message communicated to society that our world is falling apart. No wonder, really. While us scientists might think of ourselves as pretty special, we’re no more special to society as a whole than its businesses, politicians and other lobby groups. We have methods for how we come up with what we believe to be true (arguably, pretty  rigorous methods) — but other groups of people are just as entitled to communicating their points, which they believe to be important. Those points can range from “buy more burgers” to “help needy children”, and from “Vote for Me” to “Pray to Him”. In short: we’re one voice of many out there, and from the perspective of society as a whole (politicians included) no more or less interesting than all kinds of other voices.

What does this mean for how we ought to be engage with society? My short answer is “I don’t know”; my slightly longer answer is “I don’t know, but it is the single most important challenge for sustainability science”. And a pathetic attempt at an even longer answer follows below.

1. Work on issues that need attention. Given that the world is falling apart around us, what really does require our attention? Should we work where solutions are within reach — that’s one great option, and one that Gretchen Daily for example is using to push ahead the ecosystem services agenda; very successfully. Or we could work where it is truly needed because things are so messed up. That’s kind of what we’re trying to do in Romania. It’s not likely that we will “solve the problems” in Transylvania, but because the prolems are real and complex, it is important that somebody work there. Perhaps it’s easier to answer what not to study. I think we need to be careful about things that are primarily scientifically interesting, especially in systems that are not even under threat. Such work still dominates conservation (and sustainability?) literature. So, point one to me: work where it’s needed, and not just anywhere.

2. Think about leverage points — who can you reach with your work? In some systems, other researchers are your primary audience. Nobody else will listen anyway. This is the case, probably, where your work is highly contentious, and where you’re a long way ahead of where the system you are studying is. So if you propose we need to re-think our political system from scratch …. perhaps you need to bring this up with your fellow academics before trying for a revolution in the real world. The real world probably isn’t ready for that. Or if you’re against intensification but working in a system where intensification is the mantra because otherwise people starve. Again, you won’t have much of an audience beyond academia.

But in some cases, there will be a possible audience beyond academia. Engage those stakeholders, talk to them, report to them, interview them — involve them in whichever way is practical. These might be (1) individual people (“society”), (2) government officials, (3) politicians, (4) NGOs … I think a useful question to ask yourself is: who is a sensible target audience in my given system? Where is it most likely that my insights will fall on fertile ground, and effect some kind of real-world change? Then pick a strategy of engagement based on that analysis

3. Note that not everything can change the world. Being a scientivist might mean contributing to the momentum from within science. It might be that right now you see no option of using your insights to “save the world”. Perhaps not today. But perhaps you are still contributing to a wave of insights that is needed — and then it’s the wave that will ultimately sweep up the world and bring about change. You might be a tiny droplet in that wave, or a major force. But one way or the other — don’t expect that everything you do will lead to change, or even should. Personally, I don’t think this should stop you from trying though: that would be making excuses for yourself. It’s more about coping with disapp0intment (and being a bit realistic) about what you can and cannot achieve on your own.

4. We must find ways to link up, join forces, and make social change happen for real. Those of us who believe that scientivists are needed must be creative. We must do more to join our forces. So many people are now saying this — e.g. in the context of the MAHB. But what’s actually happening? Sweet F-A it seems, most of the time. What are we going to do about this?

That, to me, is the biggest challenge. There are more and more of us who agree that science is good, but on its own, not enough. We can no longer fiddle while Rome is burning, and more and more academics (particularly younger ones) feel this. Intuitively, we know it’s time for action, not just talk. So how we do join forces? What kinds of platforms do we need? How do we get this message to the public? To the media? To politicians? What can we do to re-focus attention on the nexus of the truly big problems relating to human behaviour and sustainability?

Somewhere we have to get started. Let’s make sure we’re not so busy to work on our academic credentials that we forget what we actually ought to be doing!

6 thoughts on “If scientivists are truly needed — what should they be doing?

  1. I do agree with your take in “It’s not likely that we will “solve the problems” in Transylvania, but because the problems are real and complex, it is important that somebody work there”. It is also nice that somebody says that, I’m pretty much used to a more distant, strictly career-optimising approach.

    I see more problematic / complex deciding where “it is needed” in conservation; come immediately to mind ideas of triage and systematic conservation. Was that what you meant there? If so, I still like the take of Stuart Pimm some time back; “Saving the very rarest pushes the technical frontier of conservation biology, for nothing concentrates the mind like impending extinction, nor so openly tests whether our knowledge of ecology, genetics, and behavior is up to the task”

    I might give up soon, though.

    At any rate, isn’t your blog scientivism?

  2. Hi Mario — thanks for your comment! Where is it needed …? Indeed, a multi-million dollar question! And not one I know the answer to. Again, I think this is very much context-dependent, and not objective. I might find it’s necessary to work in Transylvania; someone else might find that a waste of time (for whatever reason). The issue of threatened species is clearly a particularly tricky one. The triage concept is something that kind of drives me crazy. On the one hand, I sympathise that at some point, it’s worth “switching off” the life support system for some species that essentially are doomed. However, I also find it overly simplistic to say we ought to stop funding threatened species research or action because they are doomed anyway. Indeed, the money available for threatened tigers is not the same money as what would be available for common but declining farmland birds. We cannot maximise how to spend a fixed conservation budget via triage, because in reality the budget is not fixed: it depends on whether society sympathises with our particular projects. So where is action needed? If you think it’s where tigers otherwise disappear, that’s your choice, and it’s one that can be defended. If I think it’s where common farmland birds are declining, there’s logic to that, too. Triage gives the false impression that we collectively have to choose where to focus attention; I’m not sure that’s the case. I have to choose where I work. And you have to choose where you work. And society will choose what kind of work it wants to support — there is no fixed budget for conservation that should be optimised.
    … Okay last comment: of course in some situations there is, such as when a government says it wants to spend x million dollars on threatened species. Then indeed, you have a constraint, and optimising within that constraint makes sense. — But let’s not assume constraints where there may not be any! Part of scientivism (which of course I am doing via the blog, indeed …) will be to draw attention towards the plight of the anthropocene, thereby raising the money available to address the problems we have caused!

    Enough rambles. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Hi again,

    In my first reading of your post, I overlooked the questions in the last paragraph, what platforms and means to broadcast conservation science to the public. I do not have an answer, just the meager consolation of common concerns… At a local scale, one could say parochial probably, we discuss a lot lately how to get conservation science heard; mostly because the distance between policy, politics and science seems to be getting wider in Spain. Involution. And the platforms within our reach (blogs, tweets, social stuff…) seem somewhat to me like “cooking in our own juices”, and those platforms are also available to and clogged with stuff from anthropocene-you-got-to-be-kidding-me lobbies.

    However, I see some hope of improvement via a relatively new role around here: science-savvy journalists, hired by universities and administrations as middlemen to bridge the gap between the scientist and the media (more professional, less time-consuming for the scientist). And I say only some hope because so far the role is focused mostly on marketing: new papers, flashy grants, kraken-searching expeditions etc., not really in broadcasting established ideas, or the big ideas out there from somebody, someplace else. So gaining that new ground, a communications office for disciplines, not just for new results out of public money, would do good.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep pointing undergrads to this and other sources of science info, MAHB-like initiatives… So thanks for it all!

  4. Great points, Joern. But a point of (likely superficial) disagreement:

    “…where your work is highly contentious, and where you’re a long way ahead of where the system you are studying is. So if you propose we need to re-think our political system from scratch …. perhaps you need to bring this up with your fellow academics before trying for a revolution in the real world. The real world probably isn’t ready for that.”

    I think this is, in some ways, precisely backwards. At least within ecology as I’ve experienced it, there is little receptiveness and even less interest in challenging or re-thinking the political system, from scratch or otherwise. What’s worse, in my experience there is little knowledge or awareness of the huge amounts of literature that have systematically studied how both policy and policy systems are influenced or change. The attitude, frankly, seems to be that social sciences are so inexact as to not be worth extensively considering/consulting when it comes to thinking about how to make change. (There is, indeed, the assumption of the “linear policy model” — see e.g. hep.phys.utk.edu/~physics/talks10-2/stpp002.pdf ; http://www.shapingsciencepolicy.com/2011/05/linear-model-science-to-policy.html ; http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/publications/special/honest_broker/minerva_review.pdf among others.) But there is little reason to think, and plenty reason not to think, that scientific debates or knowledge “trickle down” with any kind of regularity or consistency.

    Conversely, there are many, many groups out there that do believe in changing political systems fundamentally; what is interesting is that beyond those groups, in my experience, there is also profound desire among the “average” student or person to have systems that are more accountable, more participatory, and more amenable to citizens’ feedback and control. Part of the “solution” to this, I think, lies in Ostrom’s extensive work on the (often, but not guaranteed) virtues of local governance. Another part lies in parallel work on direct democracy, and innovative ideas put forward by tons of groups from academia to NGOs and beyond.

    Said in short, I find that *average people* (or at least, average students, and many other people I come across) are incredibly desirous of a fundamentally different system–an expansion of direct democratic and participatory forms would be fundamental changes to the (small-r) republican systems that dominate current structures. They have been convinced/doubt that such change is possible, but they are not against it and are generally of the mind that, of course, academics could/should be involved in such change (as fellow citizens, if nothing else). In contrast, the majority of ecologists I know personally seem to be of the mind that a slower, reformist approach (e.g. no fundamental change) is all that can be expected or desired, and seem disinclined to think that a) fundamental change is needed, but b) if it is needed, it’s simply impossible/unlikely to happen, and anyway, c) scientists should not be involved in fundamental political change, and d) if they are, it should certainly be in a capacity completely distinct from their roles as scientists.

    Hence, as Nelson and Vucetich point out, you can end up with the very perverse point of view where scientists are obliged/entitled to advocate insofar as that they are citizens like everyone else, but they are prohibited from applying their professional understanding or expertise towards transparent, reasoned advocacy in any formal or open way.

    tl;dr: If you think fundamental change is needed, you may end up a very, very lonely and ostracized scientivist with few willing to engage in active dialogue in the academy, and may find far more fulfilling work, conversation, and open engagement in action ecology, citizen science, and working with/for/next to groups “on the ground” (e.g. La Via Campesina, the MST, Family Farm Defenders, etc. to name a few from my area).

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s