The dust hasn’t settled yet on Rio+20, so it’s probably too early to tell whether the multilateral conference outcome document  and other outcomes will manage to make a difference for the health of this planet. But, at least for now, the impression is that this was yet another multilateral failure or at least a big disappointment, in spite of the progress made in certain areas  – campaigners, journalists, analysts and many scientists seem to agree world leaders failed to live up to the expectations.

It’s probably true that people shouldn’t expect too much from multilateral decision making, especially in these difficult times (with the festering Eurocrisis and strong climate denialism and elections coming up in the US for example ), and with so many conflicting views on urgent priorities in countries and the way forward. Also, nobody denies that it’s important to tackle the sustainability challenge bottom-up and at all levels – city, regional, national, with strong private sector involvement …, and not just at the global level.  And some progress has indeed been made, for example on sustainable development goals, and outside the formal negotiations.

Yet, once again, a big part of the scientific community in Rio will go home with the impression that our leaders simply do not display the ‘sense of urgency’ that the situation requires. No matter how many flashy reports, dire warning scenarios (with a recent Royal Society report and the article in Nature just before Rio+20 as some of the latest examples), ‘state of the planet’ indicators, planetary boundaries lists, … scientists produce, political leaders do not give the impression to listen much. The fact that Obama, Merkel & Cameron didn’t even show up, probably says it all. (Merkel has the time to go to Gdansk, to attend the football game between Germany and Greece, but apparently not for Rio.)

Chances are that this evidence-policy gap will not be bridged easily. That sure sounds familiar for global health scholars. Health systems researchers always argue for evidence-informed policy, for example. Climate and other scientists concerned about the state of the planet are in a similar position: their science routinely gets ignored, or at best lip service is being paid to it by politicians, often in very vague language. The health of the planet is, however, approaching a tipping point, and the consensus is that we already live in the Anthropocene. Greenhouse gas emissions should peak by 2015 for example, if we are to have a decent chance to keep global warming under a 2 degrees temperature rise, and that’s just one example.

To bridge the gap, scientists need to change tack, or at least add some other tools to their toolbox of means to influence global decision making.  Push-and pull mechanisms and integrated knowledge translation approaches obviously remain useful and necessary, but the planetary predicament and the urgency of a more sustainable economic model seem to require a more aggressive approach. Scientists have to go beyond ‘business as usual’. If not now, then when?

In my opinion, it’s time for a global social movement of scientists who are concerned about the lack of global decision making and global governance to set the planet on a more sustainable path.

How can you get the attention of decision makers, always busy trying to win the next election and tackling financial crises? Right, by getting the 24 hour attention of the media (and thus public opinion) as well as the attention of the financial markets. Everybody expects scientists to produce reports, do state-of-the art research, write well-argued Op-eds, etc. However, nobody expects them to go on strike, organize sit-ins, demonstrate, join Avaaz and other viral social media campaigns, while risking their scientific reputation, occupy parliaments, etc. Mass media would instantly be interested in this story – “Scientists have had enough”.

In this era, scientists, who naturally think more long-term than politicians, might have no other choice than becoming activists, part-time at least, if they want decision makers to act upon their evidence-based warnings. We bet a global Occupy Science (OS) movement would get a lot of media attention. For too long scientists have tried to maintain their scientific neutrality and objectivity label, and left the dirty work to civil society, Ngos and other (new) social movements. It’s time to join and make our own hands dirty, as the times seem to require it. For too long, activism has been “outsourced” to civil society. We don’t mean scientists should yell things that aren’t backed up by evidence, what we mean is that they should be prepared to use activist tools to boost the chance that their science reaches the ears of decision makers.

Obviously, OS would need to be truly global, it cannot just be confined to some western and northern universities – for example Brazilian, South-African and Indian researchers would have to join, even if they have somewhat different views on sustainable development, given their countries’ context. Scholars with established reputations and careers would have to take the lead, and even more so the ones on the higher hierarchical layers (the likes of Peter Piot, Julio Frenk, … for the global health community, for example), as younger researchers inevitably tend to be more vulnerable and less-connected.  Plenty of scientists would need to be involved, from a range of disciplines, in order to avoid the cheap labels of ‘isolated left-wing researchers dreaming about a more just but unfortunately utopian world’ or ‘ a bunch of climate scientists who just want to get more funding’.

Ideally, scholars and researchers would grab decision makers’ and financial markets’ attention by hitting them where it hurts: in the economy, country’s GDP and profit. In other words, not just progressive scholars and social science departments – “the usual suspects” – should strike, but also R&D institutes, civil engineering departments that develop applications for the market, green tech, biotech, nanotechnology, people developing vaccines,…  you get the picture. If these kinds of “applied” scientists  with business links strike, decision makers all over the world will pay attention.

We agree many research institutes are already in a difficult position themselves, with government funding cuts across the board for some, and large-scale privatizing of research and university education. So the current environment is not very encouraging for this sort of action. Many people might be inclined to keep low-profile, and that’s understandable. Many university departments and scholars might also be against  this kind of ‘unscientific’ strategy, especially in times of public-private partnership and corporate sponsoring of universities, or because they believe in technological breakthroughs to save the planet. Also, it’s very well possible that scientists are just too individualistic or career-focused to organize this sort of global campaign. But if for example an ‘annual day of scientific strikes’ were organized all over the world to put pressure on decision makers, on clear focal action points (for example, on the FTT, on the need to regulate the financial sector, or in favour of a Global Green fund with guaranteed public  funding), at the very least, this would trigger debate in the scientific community, and that’s always a good thing.

If the scientific community indeed believes the time to act is now, as each and every recent report on the state of the planet seems to show, we should show people we mean business. It’s time for a global social movement of scientists scared stiff about the lack  of decisive global action to keep this planet healthy and our economy sustainable. Scientists should use this activist weapon cautiously, if it is to be effective. But it should be part of the toolbox.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot  thinks  a ‘plutocracy’ of ultra-rich has hijacked our democracies over the last 20 years. Political priorities are routinely being distorted to their advantage, and democracies have become a façade. Many people think it’s time to take our democracies back – before it’s too late. A global social movement of scientists, prepared to consider less ‘scientific’ strategies, might help convince mass media and public opinion that the danger to humanity is real and present, and that the time to do something about it is running out.

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2 Responses to Occupy Science: Time for more activist tools to bridge the gap between science and decision making?

  1. Kristof Decoster says:

    Let’s discuss after Euro 2012 🙂

  2. Maryam Bigdeli says:

    Just let me know when you get organised, I’m all ready to assist…

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