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Opinion

It is time to abandon the false distinction between science and advocacy

Published on 21 January 2020

Image of James Georgalakis
James Georgalakis

Director of Communications and Impact

As the Natural History Museum declares a planetary emergency, can we finally stop pretending that research can be separated from activism?

The UK’s Natural History Museum has declared a planetary emergency. Their announcement is part of the museum’s new strategy, in which it sets out its plans to empower citizens to act on climate change. A spokesperson for the museum talking on the BBC, stated quite passionately, that giving people the facts did not work, the scientific community had to advocate for change.

One rarely hears these issues of objective science versus policy advocacy discussed quite so straightforwardly on mainstream national media. I sensed that journalists were not all that surprised by this move. The museum, to its credit, has long taken environmental issues and public engagement very seriously. However, I think how the museum described their commitment to informing the discourse and action on climate is significant. Climate science is often portrayed as being a debate over factually contested evidence, when really it’s a political struggle. The museum recognise that there may be significant public support for the scientific community taking its role in this political discourse more seriously.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that has faced climate scientists has been to appeal to hearts as well as minds. A post-enlightenment faith in facts speaking for themselves has held back progressives from framing climate change in ways that challenge powerful interests and social and political norms. However, that seems to be changing now. To arrive on the Natural History Museum’s website and be greeted by a large image announcing that we face a planetary emergency shows how far we have come. A traditional institution, which first opened its doors in 1881 and was best known for their dinosaur bones and stuffed birds, have positioned themselves as integral to climate activism. They have even named a new species of bug after Greta Thunberg.

Concepts of objective science are deeply problematic and we needn’t look back starry eyed at a semi-mythical age of scientific discovery and trust in experts. Knowledge has always been political and evidence contested. Social scientists have known this for a long time and they largely accept that they actively engage with and are products of the world they seek to understand. But even here, there is a reluctance to use the A word (advocacy). I wonder how many listeners to this morning’s interviews with the museum understood that if climate science is political then surely to some degree it all is. What about evidence on how our children are taught in school, social care reform, the running of health services and the response to international emergencies?  Could a climate emergency, in which the public increasingly accept that science can be both rigorous and engaged with policy advocacy, pave the way for a more engaged science (and scientists) in all areas of our lives?

My daughter is currently going through a science phase (hopefully it will last) and wants to know how everything works. Chemistry kits and electrical circuit boards litter her bedroom and her heroes are female palaeontologists and mathematicians like Mary Anning and Ada Lovelace. She also takes a keen interest in how other sorts of things work. Like why we vote in elections, who is responsible for maintaining her favourite park and who decides how her school is run. She seems to accept, without question, that understanding the world and making it better are the same thing. She makes no distinction between her interest in technology or school governance and her concern for the children she sees on charities’ television appeals who lack clean drinking water or who don’t get to go to school. If the Natural History Museum and my nine-year old can work out that you needn’t choose between doing science and doing activism, so can the rest of us.

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