“If You See Something, Say Something”: The Scientist as Activist

The title of my post comes from a recent New York Times article by climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University.  About a decade ago, a scientific paper he co-authored flung him into the middle of the climate wars – “hounded by elected officials, threatened by violence, and more.”  His paper established that the Northern Hemisphere’s warming in our times exceeded the records of the past 1000 years, illustrating this with the now famous “hockey stick” graph that is one of the iconic images of climate change science.

Michael Mann once believed that scientists should keep their distance from matters of politics, policy and societal implications of their research in order to safeguard their objectivity.  He no longer believes it.


There is nothing inappropriate, he says, about “drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.”  And he is not alone.  The former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, climate scientist James Hansen  retired from NASA to be more active in confronting climate change.  The well-known picture below shows him being arrested at a demonstration on August 29, 2011.  He explains his position simply and powerfully in this short TED talk.


Prominent climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who passed away in 2010, didn’t think being a scientist-advocate was an oxymoron.

“Just because we scientists have Ph.D.’s we should not hang up our citizenship at the door of a public meeting.”

This memorial lecture in his honour by climatologist Gavin Schmidt discusses the issue of advocacy in science very lucidly.  

Nobel laureate Sherwood Rowland, who shared the Nobel for uncovering the ozone problem, said

“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

To me the debate about whether scientists should be activists or not is somewhat puzzling.  I grew up in India where I absorbed the notion that with science comes power, and with power responsibility, and that all scientists have a responsibility to society because what they discover can change society for good or ill.  Particle physicists know this particularly well, thanks to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  (Perhaps this might be one reason why the Union of Concerned Scientists, a scientist-citizen alliance that advocates for sound science in policy decisions, was founded by two particle physicists at MIT in 1969). 

Growing up in India, I read about scientists who went into rural and small-town India to find ways to communicate science to the dispossessed and disadvantaged.  I heard of scientists working on the development of low cost, locally available materials to teach science – one of my professors in college was one of them.  Later I became aware of a growing network of regional movements, diverse in focus and intent, that fall under the umbrella of People’s Science Movements.  Many of these are guided by the notion that science and technology should not remain in the hands of a privileged few.  Often blending science with traditional knowledge, these groups have taken on the task of literacy, social justice, and alternative, environmentally sustainable models of development.  When I was briefly at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai in 1993, I was able to attend a public event of street theater, speeches and music on the streets of Chennai organized by the Tamil Nadu Science Forum.   TNSF started out as a group of scientists in the1980s interested in science education and popularization, and publishing a science magazine for children.  Since the 1990s the group has grown to thousands, and has been involved in the literacy movement, healthcare, environment and sustainability issues and advocacy for the poor and oppressed.  Another group deeply involved in science literacy is Eklavya, founded by Vinod Raina, a physicist who left his Delhi University job to develop a unique science teaching experiment called Hoshangabad Vigyaan, and co-authored India’s bold Right to Education Act, in effect since 2009.

The scientist-activist is part of a vocal subgroup in India, and my impression is that people take his/her existence without surprise.  Things are very different in the United States, where the culture of science is more reticent.  The ‘objectivity’ argument, for me, doesn’t stand scrutiny.  To be objective is to make sure that your feelings, emotions, biases, don’t get in the way of scientific truth.  But if you are advocating a position based on scientific truth, how can that be a threat to your scientific integrity?  Scientists are citizens too, and as such share the right – the duty, even – to speak up when speech is needed.

During Dr. David Victor’s lectures last week on climate policy, we studied the history of the Montreal treaty, which is an environmental success story.  While it is not an ideal model for the far more complex subject of climate change, we can learn a few useful things from its history that are yet applicable to the larger problem.  In the case of the protection of the ozone layer, there were “Four Hypotheses” — four drivers that ultimately led to the treaty.  First, the scientists, who speculated that chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons were destroying the ozone layer (the above-quoted Sherwood Rowland being one of them).  Then the activists – environmentalists, NGOs, who played a crucial role in convincing the American public to boycott CFC aerosols and put pressure on the powers that were.  Third, the chemical industry, which after some protestations started to yield to public pressure and look for alternatives to CFCs — and fourth, the confabulations and considerations among governments that led to the international treaty and its successors.  Astonishingly, the treaty was put in force in 1987, during a period when the science of ozone destruction was going through a period of confusion.  The hard evidence came with Susan Solomon’s work, published a few months after the signing of the treaty.  (This is in stark contrast to the situation with climate change, where the basic science of anthropogenic warming is not in doubt).

Therefore I believe a scientist who is also an activist can play two important roles instead of just one.  It is still true, however, that before making statements on matters of policy, scientists should make an effort to learn about things outside their field through study and by consulting a variety of experts.  Policy, international law, and the social sciences in general are all crucially relevant to the climate change discussion.  To understand these matters well requires hard work and a respect for these other disciplines. Scientists should put in as much effort into understanding these matters as they would like others to put in regarding the science of climate change.  (This is a large part of my motivation to take a course that covers the non-science aspects as well as the science).

Recently the US State Department released a report on the Keystone XL pipeline that claims the pipeline will not do much environmental damage.  Not only is the report under the shadow of a conflict-of-interest investigation (one of the reviewers allegedly being a member of the American Petroleum Institute), but it ignores the central issue with the pipeline – that it will commit us to an infrastructure that will result in massive releases of more carbon dioxide and methane – and thus delay the swift change to a green-energy-based economy that is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.  Michael Mann has been outspoken about Keystone XL, saying that approving the pipeline could be the biggest mistake of Obama’s presidency.  

So today I braved the snow and the freezing temperatures to stand for an hour at a busy crossing with other people who feel deeply concerned about climate change.  We were mothers, grandfathers, professors, nurses, teachers, standing in the gently falling snow with our signs held up high.  My fingertips froze through my gloves but our camaraderie and the occasional supportive honking of passing cars kept us warm.  We were one of two hundred and fifty anti-Keystone vigils across the United States.  If Obama approves the pipeline, 76,000 volunteers have pledged to engage in non-violent civil disobedience throughout the country.

To know something and to choose not to act on that knowledge cannot possibly be a credible moral stance.  It is time for scientists to emerge from their laboratories and offices and speak of what they know about climate change, and join their fellow citizens across the world in confronting the powerful vested interests that stand between us and a sustainable world.

This entry was posted in climate change activism, Climate Change General, Climate Change Policy, UCSD Climate Change Course and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to “If You See Something, Say Something”: The Scientist as Activist

  1. Swarna says:

    Excellent, Vandana!
    I appeared for an interview for a PhD op last June at a well-known establishment in Bangalore, The panel included specialists in ecology and environment research. My background (UG, PG and 10 years work) happens to be aerospace engineering, followed by 10+ years of totally voluntary approaches to environmental self-learning, research and writing. The panel very kindly suggested a status quo, implying also that PhD’s tend to continue in their line of academic work without much effort going towards policies that could arise out of their work, (referring likely to a section of my SOP).
    IMO too, that era of seeking comfort within the confines of a lab or institute should make way for more and quicker policy making and implementation.
    Indeed India does have several examples of scientists / experts who believe in and do their part for the larger social and environmental good. One such is Arvind Gupta http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arvind_Gupta

    • vsinghsblog says:

      Thanks for the really interesting link! Cool that he was part of the Hoshangabad Vigyaan efforts. As for your experience at the interview, what a lack of imagination on the part of the panel! My own environmental learning has been mostly self-taught. Kudos to us!

  2. Deb Jeffrey says:

    In Canada, any scientists working in government research labs are being severely muzzled these days. University researchers also feel a little ‘shy’ about speaking up as they compete for funding. One University of Victoria climate scientist, Andrew Weaver, took the leap and entered politics. He has contributed to the IPCC report and has been tirelessly advocating. In 2008, he published Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World for the general public and has numerous academic publications. http://climate.uvic.ca/people/weaver/

    • vsinghsblog says:

      Very interesting, and what a pity. I wonder to what extent the muzzling and competition for funds is taking a toll on both the quality and direction of science. Given how much power science can hold, it is inevitable that the powerful will want to control scientists. Scientists need to figure out how not to become instruments for vested interests. Thanks for the Andrew Weaver link — very cool.

  3. Doug Telling says:

    Nice post. When science concluded that part of its job was to understand nature in order to use it, it couldn’t hide its political dimension. Even the purest of pure physics, let’s say, changes our cosmology and therefore our understanding of who we are. Political. Larry gave an excellent talk on climate change a few years ago (in HH 212?). Afterwards I said to him, wow, that was all about policy. He replied, of course it is but no one else understood that. Your last paragraph says everything about politics and science and says it eloquently. Especially the first sentence.

    • vsinghsblog says:

      Thanks, Doug! You are right about the politics inevitably getting mixed up with the science. We are a political species. I remember the talk, helped organize it in fact. So important to point out to our students how policy and science intersect, but even scientists are only vaguely aware of this. I am now getting something of a feel for policy issues, having read a few papers and a few treaties.

      • Doug Telling says:

        Larry totally got it. But at FSU in particular and in US generally, it can undermine the credibility of a scientist if the “science” talk includes politics.

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s