The Scientist as Citizen: Finding your voice

By Philip Howard | 14 June 2023

What happens when the nature of your research seems to necessitate urgent political action, particularly in the fields of climate change, biodiversity and air quality? Should you be the passive, contemplative scientist who lets their data do the talking? Or should you take a more active role as a concerned citizen, and, if so, how could you give voice to your concerns?

In contemporary research culture, with ‘the impact agenda’ so important to research finance, scientists and the institution they represent need to be to be open to discussing all these questions. In the second Good Science Friday Forum, with 50 undergrads, postgrads, postdocs and academics, we did exactly that.

Led by Claudia Cannon and Stephen Webster, for a brief hour over lunchtime we were invited to ‘close the scrolls of information, let the laptop sleep, sit still and shut your eyes’ to listen to the voices of a podcaster, policymaker, pedagogue and, as you may have guessed, a poet.

‘a story you have to tell’

It was Nick Drake, the poet but also a dramatist and a screenwriter, who opened the meeting giving voice to his form of activism – storytelling. During an expedition to Svalbard his first reaction of a sense of wonder at its sublime beauty was transcended through his own reflections and conversations with scientists. He then saw the pollution in the water and the ice, and the effects of global warming such as variations in the thermohaline circulation. His ‘activist’ response was to write a book-length poem, The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012). It is the voices of people who were there, in voices both humans and non-human and to write in the voices of time, the voices of the past, the present and the future.

Pete Knapp, a PhD student at Imperial in indoor air pollution is active in Imperial Climate Action. Like Nick, Pete communicates with stories. His turning point to activism occurred as he overflew endless palm forests on his way to see a much-depleted rainforest in Borneo. On joining Scientists for Extinction Rebellion Pete started a podcast called ‘Tipping Points’ to share the stories of why some scientists became environmental activists. He extended this to those in other professions and to those under 25 who have yet to fix on a career.

‘not written in stone but in time’

Becky Mawhood, Head of the Climate and Environment Hub, UK Parliament, highlighted some other ways to get your voice heard. Our laws, after all, are not fixed but can change with convincing evidence. Scientists, citizens and activists can influence and shape policy by representing their research through bodies such as The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Common and Lords Libraries and Select Committees which scrutinise Government policy.  Becky’s team and a Knowledge Exchange unit support the exchange of information and expertise between researchers and the UK Parliament.

Tilly Collins is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Imperials’ Centre for Environmental Policy. It is now on its 45th MSc cohort. Tilly’s environmental activism is voiced through her teaching of people about sustainability. These people, spread across the world, can make an impact, ‘nudging’ others such that environmental benefits, such as not eating meat, become globally normalised.

‘we are in this together’

It was clear from the audience reaction that they wanted themselves to go beyond the passive. Each person was striving to find their own voice but all felt some constraints in their desire to do more. Several referenced the ‘invisible ivory tower’ and how that challenged them to be able to tell their story. The behind-the-scenes environmental activist professor did not want to get arrested and ‘embarrass their husband. The undergraduate wanted to be supported by a wider Imperial culture, as did the academic who experienced a tension at Imperial between what he thought and what he could say due to perceived funding issues. Some needed ‘safe spaces’ such as publishing on Instagram to showcase their research to connect globally with like-minded people.

‘now open your eyes’

As the brief hour closed and we prepared to return to our desks and labs the last words were for the panellists. The need to engage all, ‘friend or foe’ in telling the story of your research was emphasised and the power of influencing policy was reiterated. Perhaps a good overall summary was inspired by Tilly’s years of teaching. Whichever voice you choose, be true to the science, true to your research, and, most importantly, be true to yourself.

The meeting closed with Nick Drake reading his poem ‘The Voice of the Future’. You can hear his poem being powerfully performed in the attached link.  Please, take two minutes out of your ‘busy’ and ‘colourful lives’ to listen to these and other voices.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *