As a climate science Ph.D. student who, over the past four years, has been grappling with how to reconcile my responsibilities as a scientist and a citizen, I've watched events unfold since the US Presidential election with a mixture of despair and cautious optimism.
Donald Trump, currently the only climate-denying world leader, is waging a war on science. Especially when it comes to climate science, Mr. Trump has eschewed facts and embraced ideology, aligning his decision-making with the interests of the fossil fuel industry, not those of the public. The clearest indication of this is perhaps his nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. When Pruitt was Oklahoma’s Attorney General, he joined forces with the fossil fuel and agriculture industries to sue the EPA 14 times for its efforts to reduce air, water and climate pollution.
Despite all this, the resistance emerging across the scientific community is reason for optimism. I see hope in the “500 women scientists” (now 16,430 and counting) who have pledged to build an inclusive society. I see hope in the scientists working to save federal climate and environmental data. I see hope in the scientists who have launched 314 Action, an initiative to help STEM-trained candidates run for public office. And I see hope in the thousands of scientists who will step out of their comfort zones to defend scientific integrity in the upcoming March for Science and People’s Climate March.
But my optimism is a cautious one because anti-science forces have been at play long before Trump took office, long before “post-truth” became Word Of The Year. Political manipulation of scientific evidence by ideologues and corporate interests has been a mainstay of American democracy since the end of World War II. Yet until last year’s Presidential election, responses from the majority of the scientific community have ranged from subdued to silent. As a recent open letter from MIT Faculty for Democracy observed, “as academics we are often more comfortable creating the conditions to individually debate back and forth than collectively to act.” If we are to sustain collective action against recurring, organized, and well-funded attempts to undermine science, we must confront the long-standing and pervasive distaste of public engagement—including advocacy—in the culture of academia.
When I started graduate school in 2011, I never imagined that by the end, my peers would consider me a “resident activist.” An introvert highly averse to politics and activism, I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in climate science under the assumption that this was the best way I could contribute to addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems. But halfway through my Ph.D., the emergence of the fossil fuel divestment movement forced me to challenge that assumption. In trying to understand the theory of change underlying the movement, I discovered three important facts. First, to stay below 2°C of global warming—the limit agreed to by almost every country on Earth—the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves can never be burned. Second, the bottleneck to tackling climate change is no longer science, technology, or policy know-how. It is the lack of political and societal action. Third, this lack of action largely stems from decades of climate disinformation campaigns funded and orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry and their ideologically driven allies.
Suddenly, the sole act of publishing peer-reviewed papers seemed laughably incommensurate with the scale, urgency, and nature of the climate crisis.
Compelled by these realizations, I joined the fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus and have since helped to lead several other climate advocacy efforts. For the past four years, I have been fortunate to work alongside several like-minded science Ph.D. students and faculty at Harvard, MIT, and beyond (I also have an incredibly patient and supportive advisor). But throughout, one thing has become clear: Earth scientists are the most unwilling to get involved in climate advocacy. In 2013, when I helped to organize a Harvard faculty open letter in support of fossil fuel divestment, three of the 264 signatories were Earth scientists. In 2014, when I encouraged fellow scientists to join the scientist contingent of the People’s Climate March in New York City, a handful came. In 2015, when I urged my colleagues to sign an open letter petitioning the American Geophysical Union—the world’s largest association of geoscientists—to reject Exxon sponsorship in light of the company’s decades of ongoing disinformation, the majority declined. One responded, “This is not an issue I care about.”
Why are some of the best-informed citizens so unwilling to speak out?
Granted, I have been trying to mobilize scientists to participate at the extreme end of public engagement. And so an obvious answer is that scientists fear jeopardizing their credibility (though a recent study suggests that this fear is unfounded). But there is a more deep-rooted problem underlying this fear: most scientists are ill equipped and inexperienced when it comes to contributing to public and political discourse. This is perpetuated by the lack of incentives at all stages in an academic’s career. Besides doing research and publishing, my Ph.D. requirements involve taking science classes, teaching, and attending a departmental field trip. In most universities, faculty hiring and performance are evaluated based on research, teaching, and service to the university. The first time I heard a senior scientist suggest we all commit some of our time to public and political engagement was two weeks ago.
Recent events indicate that there are in fact many scientists, especially early-career ones, willing to step beyond the current norms of academia. I therefore call on my fellow members of the scientific community to: (1) re-evaluate our roles and responsibilities in today’s society, and to foster these discussions in our labs and universities (I recommend Jane Lubchenco’s and Naomi Oreskes’ thoughtful remarks on this issue); and (2) consider practicing at least one form of engagement with the public, media, or policymakers, ranging from outreach and education to advocacy. I also urge advisors and department heads to support early-career scientists wishing to acquire interdisciplinary skills for public engagement.
Let’s transform the culture of academia so that being a scientist-advocate is no longer an oxymoron, but a moral responsibility we owe to society. Let’s support, not suppress, our colleagues who choose to engage. Let’s change the mantra of academia from “Publish. Publish. Publish” to “Publish. Communicate. Engage.”