Activism in academia

Eva Lantsoght
7 feb ’19

Activism in academia is a hot topic. Some argue that our only responsibility is to do the research, and publish our results - and the rest will sort itself out: the right people will pick up on our conclusions and turn this into policies and actionable items. Some go even further, and say that activism is a threat to carrying out research in a neutral environment.

I beg to differ - with more and more voices trying to persuade that science is something almost like a religion (you believe in it or not), I feel compelled to roll up my sleeves and turn my work into more practical and actionable items. The wake-up call for me was the latest IPCC report and the loud and clear alarm bells our fellow scientists are ringing. I spent quite some time wondering how I can contribute. While I'm only exploring these options recently, I wanted to share these with you, and get your feedback on this!

Here are some of the ideas that I collected:

1. Develop case studies

Think about how your cause of interest is affected by your field. For example, in my case, the cement used for building concrete structures is a large contributor to the world's CO2 emissions. Since a while, I've been adding calculations of carbon footprint and driver delays (as a measure of social cost) when I want to estimate the cost of a certain decision (replacement, testing, maintenance...) of an existing bridge. Presenting the results in such a format can shine a different light on the choices we make.

Another example could be that you want to see more gender balance in your field and/or institution. A first step could be to simply gather data: which % of students are female? Which % of faculty members, deans, etc?

2. Use speaking opportunities

When you are invited to give a presentation, and depending on the audience, take the chance to talk about how your cause of interest is related to your field. In the past, I've been taking the opportunity to talk about maintenance of existing structures when invited to speak to a general audience of the construction industry in Ecuador, since I feel that all attention here goes to building new structures, after which we just turn our back to this structure and never give it the maintenance it needs to thrive. At a next opportunity, I would like to talk about steps the construction industry can take to be more climate-conscious and eventually CO2-neutral.

3. Volunteer your free time

If you feel that in your professional life, it is difficult to link your cause of interest and your work, then you can consider volunteering some of your time to contribute to your cause. You can also pledge to give a certain percentage of your income every month to a charity that fights for your cause.

I must say that, even though I would love to go out and do volunteering work in the Amazon, my current family situation is not very compatible with this (my toddler would probably run off into the jungle or eat a poisonous bug). I've been thinking about this option, but haven't been able to realize it yet - nor have I been able to pledge part of my income constantly to a cause; I chip in when I can for now.

4. Take on a side research project that is related to your cause of interest

Sometimes, I feel like I am not doing research in the field that matters most for the future of humanity. I wonder if I could do more if I had been a researcher studying, for example, infectious diseases or climate change directly. For now though, I want to see if I can volunteer some of my research time to developing recommendations for the local construction industry, so that they can reduce their carbon footprint and fresh water use. Once I have these recommendations ready, I need to see how I can communicate these effectively - not with a boring report, but perhaps through infographics and lots of visuals.

5. Lead by example

I once read (and unfortunately forgot where) that as university professors, we have a responsibility to lead by example. Driving to work in a SUV and then talking about carbon footprints sends conflicting messages to our students. In our daily choices, we should show the way forward. I try to set an example by walking my commute (for now, I still live close to campus), eating no animal products, and trying as much as possible to sort out my trash and recycle. I'm also much more conscious about my conference travel, and reducing this as much as possible to limit my CO2 emissions related to air travel (and also because my daughter doesn't do well when I'm away from home).

6. Teach students how to read science

If we want people to make informed decisions, they need to learn how to interpret and analyze information. In the era of fake news, there are sadly predatory journals that have been publishing bogus science (for example, studies supporting antivaxxer claims), which gives even more fuel to those who say that "scientists are in disagreement" on topics such as vaccinations and global warming. It's important we teach our students where to find peer-reviewed articles (and certainly, post-publication peer review and "endorsements" of researchers for published articles can be an extra confirmation of quality), and teach them the basics of the scientific methods, so that they can check if the presented methods are valid. I am even leaning towards saying that this skill should be part of the high school curriculum.

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