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Academics must have a voice in social affairs, too, no matter their affiliation

The current wave of protests on the A12 highway in The Hague against government subsidies for fossil fuels have been both applauded and condemned. Several scientists have joined the protests in their professional capacity, which has led to questions of whether their activism threatens their independence as scholars. In this blog article, Dorothea Hilhorst responds to the argument of Dutch scientist and writer Louise Fresco in an NRC column last week that academics have no place in protests. All academics/scientists should be wary of their place in society and should use their positions of expertise to advocate for better outcomes, she writes.

Last Sunday, on 1 October 2023, I was standing on the highway of the A12 in The Hague, together with about 600 activists from Extinction Rebellion, until we were taken away by the police. I was fascinated by the colourful collection of activists with their original slogans chalked on cardboard and enjoyed the cheerfulness of the chants and the music. Many of the activists were here for the twentieth time in a row. Extinction Rebellion has been blocking the highway on a daily basis, starting 9 September, and aims to return every day until the Dutch government stops subsidizing fossil fuels.

As I was sitting on the road, I had serious conversations about why I was there as a scientist and whether my presence was at the expense of my independence. What struck me most is that the question of independence is so strongly linked to activism and taking action to the street. Scientists constantly interact with social groups. In fact, this is encouraged. Scientists who entrench themselves in their ivory towers have an increasingly smaller chance of obtaining scientific funding or promotions. Science is part of society, and the issues we deal with are largely determined by societies. And often enabled by societal actors, too, a lot of research is in fact financed by commercial companies.

It is very common for scientists to be active in politics in addition to their work and, for example, to serve on behalf of a political party in the Senate or on municipal councils. Scientists also often sit on supervisory boards or are attached to a company as supervisory directors. This often leads to additional income, which must be properly reported, for example on university websites, for reasons of propriety and transparency.

The social involvement of scientists regularly leads to questions about the independence of science, especially when it can be demonstrated that the scientist takes the interests of a company into account in the scientific work or — as is currently the case — if the question is raised whether it is ethically responsible to have companies such as the fossil industry, the tobacco industry, or alcohol producers help pay for research. Except in these specific cases, social involvement is seen as a must and is not considered to be in conflict with the independence of the academe. But strangely enough, it does when it comes to involvement in an activist organization — a clear double standard.

Take for example Louise Fresco, who recently argued in a column for the NRC that scientists and academics have no place in a protest, is an example of a socially involved scientist. In the past, she was a supervisory director of Rabobank, a major Dutch bank, and, as a scientist, she was co-director of Unilever in addition to her scientific work. She is currently a supervisory director at agriculture company Syngenta. In her column, though, Fresco says that scientists should not demonstrate . With that argument, scientists should also not be involved in an industry or political party. These organisations are not exclusively based in their actions by scientific evidence, and their agendas are always encompassing more that the scientist’s field of expertise can oversee.

I am happy that the activists of Extinction Rebellion are open to listening to my research findings about the consequences of climate change for poor people in poor countries — people who have never been on an airplane, yet who are paying the highest price for climate change. I think that with my scientific attitude, which is used to questioning and critically observing (like all scientists), I can contribute to the movement, and I notice that my questions about the action strategy are taken seriously, whether or not they are taken up. Above all, I am convinced that being on the A12 will not prevent me from remaining true to my independent research methods.

Is criticism of the alleged loss of independence of demonstrating scientists perhaps a veiled rejection of the method of civil disobedience that Extinction Rebellion has adopted? In that case, I advise Louise Fresco and other concerned colleagues to delve into the positive contributions to the world history of civil disobedience for, for example, the abolition of slavery, decolonization, or the fight for women’s suffrage. Scientists that remain in their ivory towers, or indeed continue to sit around glass-topped boardroom tables, can fail to engage with the full spectrum of society. This, surely, is to the benefit of no-one.

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About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.

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