Engaging for change: risks and opportunities for scientists

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November 21, 2023
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A workshop organised by the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI) on 2 November 2023 in Bern invited scientists and science communicators at the Swiss annual congress of science communication to discuss the risks and opportunities of engaging in advice, advocacy and activism as a researcher.

To address the complex and intertwined global challenges we face, scientists are increasingly called to provide their expertise not only as knowledge producers but also as communicators and advisors to decision makers. Frustration on lack of political action can also lead some of them to undertake a role of activist. 

For example, in the fields of climate change, biodiversity or health, actions by political actors are sometimes perceived by scientists as disproportionately low compared to the urgency depicted in academic reports. Frustration can lead some scientists to move towards advocacy or activism, for example by supporting civil disobedience movements such as the Extinction Rebellion or Renovate Switzerland.

At the ScienceComm’23 conference, we organised a workshop aimed at exploring the different forms of engagement by scientists with policymakers, civil society, the public, and the media. We also aimed to develop a better understanding of the implications of engaging in science advice, advocacy or activism and to learn from the experience and knowledge of various professionals present in the room.

A spectrum of engagement activities for scientists

The workshop started with a presentation of the difference between research, science communication, science advice, advocacy and activism.

Research: scientists seek to explain, understand or interpret natural and social phenomena, using the methods specific to their disciplines.

Science communication: scientists disseminate and popularise science and knowledge, in their field of competence, within or outside scientific institutions.

Science advice: the objective shifts to specifically engage with policy and decision makers. It can include scientific advice when one presents scientific facts in assessments, or policy advice when providing policy options based on scientific knowledge. Science advice can include more or less formalised forms of science-policy mechanisms, panels and processes, at the local, national or international levels. 

Advocacy: researchers formulate normative arguments (“what should be done”) to various audiences regarding the existence and nature of a problem, the identification of viable solutions or resolutions, and the necessity of action by public actors. 

Activism: scientists act and take part in public actions or concerted efforts using vigorous public campaigning to bring about political or social change.

This framing is not static as scientists can move across this spectrum depending on various opportunities of engagement. Some key variables – such as objective and normative judgement, personal values or perception of potential professional risks – can determine the nature of their engagement 

The workshop featured two discussants who shared their experiences. Dr. Fiona Stappmanns develops processes to bring together global stakeholders to co-create innovative solutions for systems change at the Wyss Academy for Nature. Dr. Jevgeniy Bluwstein leads an SNSF Ambizione project at the University of Bern on the Juridification of climate politics through climate activism and litigation in Switzerland.

Both discussants situated themselves on various parts of the spectrum described above.

Dr. Stappmanns shared the sometimes difficult experience of doing policy-relevant research in academia, but also how overcoming these difficulties shaped her journey and her current role as an intermediary at the interface of science and policy. She also discussed the importance of supporting ‘policy shapers’, meaning individuals and organisations that can influence policy making. 

Dr. Bluwstein presented how research in critical sciences – while not necessarily producing results that contribute directly to policy – can be harnessed by advocacy organisations to promote certain policy changes. He shared his experience of being involved in petitions that, when communicated in strategic ways, drew decision-makers’ attention and opened the door for dialogue. 

Risks and benefits of engaging in scientific advice, advocacy and activism

Among the risks discussed was the perceived loss of credibility when scientists seemingly move beyond ‘purely objective research’. Participants also touched on the potential risk of shifting away from research production as a result of committing to more societal engagement activities. Such risks seem less present for tenured professors. Another risk discussed was the possible manipulation and instrumentalisation of scientific results by political actors, which could affect the reputation of researchers.

As for the benefits, participants underlined the fact that, since most science is publicly funded, there is an incentive for researchers to engage with society. Such engagement could also increase the visibility of the researchers and open the door for relevant research projects. The important amount of existing knowledge and scientific consensus in some topics such as climate change can also motivate researchers to act, because their actions are more likely to be endorsed by the public. There is also evidence that such engagement does not necessarily affect the public’s perception of the credibility, trustworthiness or honesty of scientists.

Principles of engagement with policymakers and the society

The workshop continued in a world café format, allowing participants to discuss the risks and benefits of scientists engaging with societal actors.

The second question addressed in the world café was about principles or rules of engagement by scientists with policymakers and other societal actors. Participants discussed the useful role that science communicators and intermediaries can play in facilitating connections between science and society and disseminating research in broader circles. 

This bridging also requires the scientific community to listen to the needs of policymakers in terms of data, information and knowledge. Preparing scientists to better communicate their research can improve dialogue with policy makers. 

While some suggested the need for a clear separation of roles between being a researcher and an activist, others mentioned that being clear about the capacity in which a researcher is talking could also help. Transparency about one researchers' own values, role (researcher, mediator, expert, citizen) and the nature of the information presented (facts, interpretation, etc) can help in defusing suspicions of potential bias or hidden agenda. Openly stating the levels of uncertainty and scientific consensus is also important when presenting research results publicly. 

For academics struggling with the cognitive dissonance of remaining a neutral academic while trying to make a change, an option discussed was the possibility to engage indirectly by aligning professionally with communities and networks such as advocacy coalitions or social movements.

The topic of how researchers can best engage at the interface of science and society has been addressed by two other sessions and two keynotes at the conference, underlining its importance. At a time when researchers are increasingly involved in societal debates, more support and understanding in this field will undoubtedly play an important role in the future.

The slides from the event can be found here.

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