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The Good, The Bad and The Dirty

By Jeroen De Man
on April 12, 2019




Over the last few months, tens of thousands of secondary school children in several countries have been protesting for substantial (i.e. truly transformative) climate solutions. Some might call the youngsters movement ‘a good epidemic’, but certain politicians would not agree with that assessment, as in their opinion, “children need to keep their mouths shut and study”. Our own interpretation of that stance? “Before you are worth it to make a statement to us, (adult) politicians, you should have entered the job market and have aligned with our neoliberal values. If you still make noise after that, this must mean that: either you are lazy, you are a loser, or you are too intelligent for this position (which is a code for ‘weird or autistic’)”. In other words, you are not someone people want to listen to.

Like many, we were pleasantly surprised by our younger fellow citizens’ protest actions, yet we also wonder: Why them? Why do a bunch of schoolkids take to the streets, while far too many scientists who are supposed to be “on top” of things, keep working on their research (and keeping their mouths mostly shut, unlike these brave kids)? Is this the result of a generation gap? Do the current badge of young scientists belong to a wave of silent followers?

We think that what explains this lack of enthusiasm among scientists is the current climate in which they find themselves. The current academic environment is a highly competitive one and we couldn’t agree more with Logan Wilson’s phrase: “publish or perish” (although perhaps an update is necessary: nowadays, winning grants seems to have become more important than publications). Just as politicians think in legislative sessions and votes, scientists may have fallen prey to thinking in grant periods, publications and citations. Much lower on the academic’s list of importance is engagement in education, and almost ‘non-significant’ is societal engagement (unless it contributes significantly to the fame of your institution).

This brings us back to the title of this piece in which we distinguish three groups of scientists, broadly speaking. While this distinction can be applied to many socially relevant themes, we will maintain our focus on climate change. In addition, we want to remark that while making distinctions may shed light on how things work, the resulting categories are often arbitrary. The same is true for the categories we will differentiate below. People belonging to only one of these – in a clear-cut way – will always be the exception rather than the rule.  But we have a hunch that most of you will recognize and find yourselves more in one category than the other.

Let’s start with the bad guys. As in several other fields, certain scientists are incentivized (or even pressured) by lobby groups to publish to their advantage or refrain from publishing to that group’s disadvantage. Although we are not against industry, the government or any other groups investing in science, this investment should happen in a transparent way, and results that may be detrimental to the funder’s reputation and/or bottom line also need to be disclosed (and acted upon). Just like the tobacco industry and their scientists had been aware of the harmful effects of tobacco for a long time, major oil companies like ExxonMobil have been aware of their potential contribution to global warming for decades. Not speaking out, or not being transparent when being one of the scientists who was funded by Exxon raises moral questions (although some claim not to have been aware of the intentions of the company that funded their research). More recently, several oil majors have improved their tactics through funding new technologies to generate low-carbon power. From an optimistic point of view, this was quite a progressive move which indeed may be helpful in lowering future emissions, however, realistically, such investments remain very small (barely 3% of their total spending), yet they literally buy such companies the legitimacy to keep on expanding their business as usual. Based on the same strategy to mislead the public, oil majors spend > $195 million annually on campaigns which suggest they support action against climate change.  

The good ones are the group of scientists who, beyond providing quality research, take an active stance with the intention of improving society and the world, rather than their own interests or bank accounts. These scientists may be funded by public money or private companies: we do not think “the good ones” are only to be found among publicly funded scientists.

One may question whether scientists should engage in activism at all (and the issue of climate change is no different). Aren’t they the ones who are too intelligent for our society or rather too weird or autistic? And shouldn’t they leave it up to no nonsense politicians whose job this is…? Well, it is probably a farfetched comparison, but in most societies, one is obliged by law to prevent people from committing suicide. Against the backdrop of an entire species that risks committing suicide in the coming decades, from an ethical perspective, the choice between keeping silent because of so called ‘scientific independence’ (a hoax in my opinion – yes I am borrowing that word from a specific individual) or openly trying to prevent bad things from happening shouldn’t be too difficult…

Finally, the dirty ones (and probably the biggest group) are the ones that align their work with what is supposed to be lucrative in terms of winning grants and publications. They fuel the publication machine and produce science because of their own interest, prestige or career. However, apart from growing (big and influential) in science, they don’t contribute actively to a better environment, they don’t adapt their own behavior, nor do they help improve the environment (al footprint) of their institution. For the ones among you who prefer one-liners, these are the people who are on E-mission rather than on A-mission. As such, certain scientists may ask themselves if the incremental effect of their research (in terms of health improvement) may not dissappear if we were to fully take into account their behavior, including their tendency to travel across the globe. (As a reminder – we define the categories here as “Ideal types”, we realize few scientists only do science for their own career and status, just like few of the good ones are so altruistic they never even think of their own careers.)

Unfortunately, to put it mildly, the current scientific environment doesn’t see much wrong with taking this dirty path, and so rather than spending a Sunday afternoon protesting in the streets, one may start a new grant proposal in which incorporating hot topics like climate change and planetary health is “de rigueur”, but genuine commitment on the issue is lacking.   

As a final message: it’s never too late to join another group of scientists, or for your organization to shift (environmental) gears! The kids and teenagers in the streets need you. In fact, they need all of us.

PS: We would like to use this opportunity to promote some of the many action groups one could support in the fight against climate change:  305africa, scientists4climate, extinction rebellion, union of concerned scientists, … 

The authors of this piece are very grateful for the inputs from: Kristof Decoster (ITM Belgium), Jan Rongé (PhD, Postdoctoral researcher, KU Leuven).

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