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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach



By c.washbourne, on 18 October 2019

Cardboard flames have been erected around the plinth, representing the incipient danger posed by the global ‘climate crisis’. Washing around the base of the column, a tide of colour against the flames, are groups of people waving flags. A little further on, blocking each of the entrances to one of London’s busiest roundabouts, small groups stand firm with banners in the equally persistent autumn drizzle. Dancing in the street, samba drums in the distance. It is Monday 7 October 2019. A Rebellion has begun.

Nelson’s Column has grown wings. It is also on fire.

Extinction Rebellion (or XR as they are often known) have, arguably, captured the consciousness of the UK[i] more than any environmental movement of recent times. This scene in Trafalgar Square was just one of many playing out across London on the first day of the International Rebellion – a period of openly planned civil disobedience, spearheaded by this organically organised group. It comes only weeks after the Global Climate Strike brought around 100,000 people[ii] out of their schools and offices in to Central London.

For academics like myself, working at the science-policy interface on environmental science topics, events like this present critical moments for pause and reflection on how and why we do what we do. Do we support the claims of these organisations? Do we support their methods? Does this matter, so long as actions are non-violent and raise awareness of the key issues?

I have met many other academics asking themselves just these questions, in the complex debate of ‘academia vs activism’. More and more as the years go by! And the answers are a hotter mess than those flames lapping the column. For starters, many of us are implicitly trained not to step out of our professional comfort zones. The veracity of the claims we make and the platforms we choose to make them through (i.e. conferences and peer reviewed publication) are intrinsically tied to concerns about reputation; particularly perceptions of validity, objectivity and bias. We may, therefore, be deeply reticent to speak or act outside of our disciplinary boundaries and fully endeavour to ‘stick to the science’[iii]. As well as a sense of overall discomfort, additional challenges come to light when our “commitment to social justice meets the academy’s definition of a highly productive faculty member” as effort poured in to activism may be seen to detract from effort in research and teaching[iv].

It is an understandably difficult and important choice to make, to place yourself in another ‘role’ with respect to your academic work – to stand up and advocate strongly for a real-world cause or even to act as an intermediary between different knowledge generators and users. Often, we are not prepared for this role shift. We do not do it mindfully, or with a well-formed understanding of the risks and benefits, because we have simply not developed the right skills or insights to prepare ourselves. As early career scientists it still features surprisingly rarely in our training!

This conversation, naturally, has a longer history than the climate movements of the last few decades. Some note that since the mid to late 1990s there has been a “resurgence of interest in questions of political relevance within many disciplines, alongside a range of other themes focused around exploring the significance of what ‘researchers’ do.”[v] These conversations within academic theory and practice raise questions around the separate but overlapping forms of scholarship that we inevitably undertake, which can be described as: discovery (pure research), integration (informed connections across disciplines), application (service that bridges the worlds inside and outside academia), and teaching[vi] [vii].

As one of the ‘applied’ modes of scholarship, the ‘appropriate’ relationship of the academic to activism (in simplest terms, “a doctrine or policy of advocating energetic action[viii]) is often discussed but remains practically clouded. In this confusion, perceptions can become polarised and firm philosophical “boundaries” can be erected “around notions of activism and academia[ix]. But in reality, and in practice, these boundaries can be highly permeable. One recent reflection on assistant professors in the social sciences notes that: “most of us chose this career because of our commitment to a profession that is relevant to people’s lives and our desire to engage a transformative pedagogy that is grounded in social vision and moral praxis.”vii

For the most part, I stand in support of the actions of bodies like Extinction Rebellion*. Let me explain a little more:

A need to act: I support activism in the spirit of environmental awareness for many of the same reasons that I work directly with decision-makers and with a range of different global communities –  because the knowledge derived from my work and the insights of colleagues and communities worldwide has illustrated a need to act, act soon and act on many bases.

Top-down-bottom-up: I can’t begin to count the number of times that I have heard and written the mantra that genuine, transformative change for the environment needs to come from the proverbial ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. This means that we need to work collectively in both of these spaces and everything in between.

Many voices: In transdisciplinary work, in particular, we speak so often of the importance of bringing multiple views and voices to decision-making. At the very least, acts like the scene described above give voice to many more people than we often get to hear; young and old, across many backgrounds and cultures.

Collective action: As issues become more complex, there is a growing need to leverage the skills, knowledge and actions of collectives rather than individual ideas or voices; “this is not the time for individual and isolated work within closed walls” [x]

Power and privilege: I feel obliged to act on the privilege that I have, even within this relatively privileged society. A privilege and position that means my voice can be more readily heard and that my actions can be more readily seen.

I have found it important to recognise that even something as often homogeneously defined as ‘activism’, there are many different spaces in to which one can insert themselves. In my case I choose to document, discuss and motivate with words and images, I will share my knowledge so far as it stands to help highlight these important issues and, yes, sometimes I will go and dance with the samba bands. I accept the overlaps and conflicts between work life and personal life as a necessary artefact of facing issues this complex and intractable. I will continue to work from within and without, to the best of all of my abilities. Because change comes from all around us.

“Being a little subversive is underrated. A life of moral commitment and social action is a life of meaningful subversion.” vii

* the actions of decentralised organisations of this nature mean that within an overarching framing of principles and values (truth, action and public voice in the face of ‘climate and ecological crisis’), individuals and small groups formulate their own creative and non-violent means of engagement within which they feel comfortable and prepared to act. Not all individuals will support all actions, making an awareness and mindfulness of personal actions and affiliations all the more important.      

[i] Toynbee, P. The Guardian (UK). Thanks to Extinction Rebellion, we’re experiencing a climate culture change. 7th October 2019.

[ii] Weston, P. The Independent (UK). Climate strike: Key stats from protests as more than 4,600 events are held in 150 countries. 20th September 2019.

[iii] Flood, M., Martin, B. and Dreher, T., 2013. Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools. Australian Universities Review55(1), pp.17-26.

[iv]Few, A.L., Piercy, F.P. and Stremmel, A.J., 2007. Balancing the passion for activism with the demands of tenure: One professional’s story from three perspectives. NWSA Journal19(3), pp.47-66.

[v] Chatterton, P., Fuller, D. and Routledge, P., 2007. Relating action to activism: Theoretical and methodological reflections. Participatory action research approaches and methods: Connecting people, participation and place, pp.216-222.

[vi] Boyer, E.L., 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton University Press, 3175 Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648..

[vii] Few, A.L., Piercy, F.P. and Stremmel, A.J., 2007. Balancing the passion for activism with the demands of tenure: One professional’s story from three perspectives. NWSA Journal19(3), pp.47-66.

[viii] Askins, K., 2009. ‘That’s just what I do’: Placing emotion in academic activism. Emotion, Space and Society2(1), pp.4-13.

[ix] Maxey, I., 1999. Beyond boundaries? Activism, academia, reflexivity and research. Area31(3), pp.199-208.

[x] do Mar Pereira, M., 2016, January. Struggling within and beyond the Performative University: Articulating activism and work in an “academia without walls”. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 54, pp. 100-110). Pergamon.

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