Can climate researchers be climate activists?

Over the past years, the TPM Energy Transition Lab has grown to maturity. When Emile and I started together from scratch in Spring 2020 (right before the COVID-19 pandemic), we did not foresee being with 12 team members three years later. Along with maturity comes diversity. The team members of the ET Lab differ in age, background, nationality, lifestyle and so on. What binds us is the focus of the lab: energy transition. Energy transition is closely related to climate change, a hot topic among team members. One of the discussion points is climate activism and – more specifically – the dilemma many scientists and academics have: Can we, or even should we, be activists or not?

Panel Discussion

Foto: Panel on Activism. Photo by Gerdien de Vries

Earlier this year, Studium Generale invited me to moderate a panel discussion on “scientivism” in the beautiful library of Delft University of Technology (see picture). A panel of professors and students discussed several statements in interaction with a large audience. The central question for the discussion was: “Can science and activism be combined”?

One of the statements that invited considerable discussion was on the definition of activism. People have different behaviours in mind when talking about activism. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, activism is:

“The use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one.” 

But what is noticeable? Some participants explained that activism is about demonstrating and running the risk of getting arrested. Others shared that, in their view, activism is being open about their sustainable lifestyle.

Another discussion was on scientific integrity. The statement “Activism clashes with scientific objectivity” was posed. Does the general public see an activistic scientist as subjective when they perform climate research? And if not, would that be an issue for credibility? It could be a disturbing dilemma for researchers who – out of intrinsic motivation – choose climate change as their research domain. But if that means they should be silent about their personal motives to increase their academic credibility, they could feel they are not true to themselves.

Ultimately, no concrete rules or guidelines exist for being an activist academic. The question is perhaps not IF science and activism can be combined, but HOW can they be connected. We will keep this discussion open in the TPM Energy Transition Lab.