Doing science in times of climate breakdown

Doing science in times of climate breakdown

Whose side are scientists on in times of climate breakdown? Science is often called upon to provide knowledge and expertise to address global challenges and accelerate towards sustainable futures. But, critical times ask for critical thinking on science for sustainability.

European and global science policy have been restructured around ‘global challenges’ and ‘research excellence’ to commit to societal impact. Our current global challenges, including climate change, destruction of nature, and increasing global inequality, require critical interrogation of the contributions and consequences of science. In the process of understanding, resolving, and transforming global challenges we should be attentive to what is at the core of science: the attribution of value to numerical or qualitative values such as counting, classifying and evaluating physical and societal phenomena. This also holds for the practice of governing science. Science policy articulates particular kinds of future (e.g. environmental or societal outcomes) that are considered either desirable or unattractive, and it ascribes particular roles and values to science in the making of these futures. This raises important questions about the values attributed to scientific expertise and policy making in relation to sustainable futures, and the role and agency of science and policy in shaping sustainable futures.

In an attempt to address these questions, we hosted a two-day workshop on 13 and 14 June 2023 as part of the FluidKnowledge project of Sarah de Rijcke. We gathered a variety of academics reflecting on doing science in times of climate breakdown. Participants submitted contributions that covered different topics including but not limited to biodiversity modelling for sustainable financing, sustainable agriculture, deep sea mining and nature conservation. The variety of topics provided different angles to reflect upon roles and practices at the interface between science policy and scientific expertise, and how scientists position themselves in their research. Although many relevant concepts were discussed for each contribution, we would like here to highlight two common themes: Power and Plurality. Both concepts materialized in various forms and contexts and made the bridge between the different contributions. The combination of Power and Plurality made us, during the workshop, reflect upon our own position as researchers.

Power, Plurality, and the Position of the research(er)

We started the workshop with two contributions addressing climate and biodiversity modelling. Power materializes in modelling practices when modellers navigate the powerfulness of climate and biodiversity scenario models in shaping policies and futures. Biodiversity and climate models are often developed by scientific institutions to project biodiversity and climate patterns. However, their power extends beyond the scientific institutions when they are applied to, for example, inform decision-making in sustainable financing or global policy-making. In these translation processes from science to environmental decision-making the political, social and ethical dimensions come into play. The plurality of perspectives present in these dimensions are not integrated in the original models. Nevertheless, the models and the knowledge models create are used in high level decision-making and serve therefore as a powerful tool that scientific institutions should take into account in their model designs.

When zooming out, we touched upon the powerful organizational forms of what is valued as ‘useful science’, which is now dominated by the (Western) techno economic paradigms that steer green technology transitions. A good example of the power of this paradigm is the demands it puts on governments, companies, and researchers to explore the deep seabed for minerals like cobalt to support a sustainable future. We touched upon deep sea research that seem to be trapped into a power grab, controlled by (inter)national governments and industry to generate knowledge on the environmental impacts of deep-sea mining useful for companies and policy-making at international levels. In relation to that, the importance of disinterestedness of researchers in this space is highly valued by most actors involved. As a result, this means that eyebrows are being raised when researchers cooperate with industry or, alternatively, when researchers tend to take radical views against deep sea mining. Is it, as scientists, justifiable to step away from the importance of being detached and disinterested, and actively choose sides?

Whose side are we on?

‘Whose side are we on’ as researchers was vividly highlighted when discussing a contribution on the co-creation of knowledge for nature conservation in South Africa. The pressure put on scientists to engage with the variety of social actors that work in South African nature parks stems from the belief that this would increase the effectiveness of implementing conservation policies and empower local communities. However, based on experiences with research projects on transfrontier wildlife management and private game farming, we discussed whether knowledge co-creation can also be counterproductive for empowering marginalized communities. This could be the case when powerful actors like non-profit organizations or wildlife managers try to silence marginalized communities through discrediting researchers and delegitimizing other types of knowledges and perspectives. Instead of disengaging, detaching, and staying independent from these power dynamics, researchers might have to choose positions when engaging in these types of socio-ecological issues.

By the end of a fruitful and constructive workshop discussion, we were left with more questions than answers to reflect upon. The discussions and diversity of topics that were addressed in the context of doing science in times of climate breakdown led us to reflect on who’s side we are on as researchers ourselves. This includes the question of what we can potentially do (more of) or should stop doing within our research and beyond to address global challenges. What does it actually mean to be a scientist in this world? Should we politicize science, take (very) critical views on what is happening, stand up from the relatively comfortable science studies armchair and dive in?

What is next? All workshop participants will continue to write their own contributions and reflect on these questions in the next year. The current contributions will be further developed into a journal collection or edited volume. We extend our warm thanks to all participants of the workshop: Béatrice Cointe, Klaudia Prodani, Mandy de Wilde, Niki Vermeulen, Thomas Franssen, Jorrit Smit, Jackie Ashkin, Francesco Colona, Anne Urai, Esther Turnhout and Marja Spierenburg.

This blog post is part of a project that has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 805550).


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