Sunday, April 24, 2011

What if scientists quit?

As any person that does research would tell you, any probing into nature and complex systems always raises more questions than answers. As a chemical kineticist, I can assure you that people haven't even agreed on the kinetics of hydrogen+oxygen, the simplest group of reactions physically possible in combustion. (I am at times worried that fist fights will break out at conferences over peoples' differences in the understanding of these simple kinetics.) As humans, we are curious, and it is nice to "know" more about how things and the world work. But inevitably, the rise of more questions makes us think that we should find the answers to those questions, which inevitably leads to more research. In no way am I saying that all research is bad, but I believe that there comes a time when more research is not the best use of our time, of our energy, of our emotions.

Climate change is a fitting example of this. We have known for decades now that greenhouse gases are responsible for climate change, and that it is humans that are responsible for the emissions of these greenhouse gases. Yet, there is more and more research being done into climate change, and more and more articles and assessments being published, and more and more grants being written, and more and more time and effort and money being expended. We are never going to know how the climate works totally, but we do have a good enough understanding of how it does. And more fundamentally, we know (we know, we know, we know, we know!) that our behaviour, our ethics, are driving us to release more and more greenhouse gases. What should we do about this knowledge? (Of course the techno-optimists will say, 'We need better technology.' Well, we know how well that has worked out...) More research is probably leading to more lost time.

What if scientists said, 'Enough is enough! The best use of our time is to actually mobilise and act on our findings, not to beat a dead horse and learn more about the nuances of climate.' What if scientists quit? What if they boycotted "research" and became activists? Many of you might say, 'Well, scientists are socially awkward, and they'd be terrible organisers.' Okay. But think about the power that they have. They are the ones bringing in money to institutions of "learning." They are the ones that are teaching the youth about the issues. And they are the ones that know full well how our behaviours are leading to ecological degradation. We know all that we need to know to make huge strides towards treading lightly on this planet. We just need to take those steps.

Many people have talked about the role of scientists and engineers in public policy. Robert Pielke Jr. does a good job at delineating those roles in his book The Honest Broker. But the roles that he talks about assumes that scientists rest within the current structures of society that lead to much inertia - the government-university-industry complex. Only a handful are out there, writing more publicly, trying to organise and mobilise.


  1. Reminds me of a short story by Arthur Clarke, of a civilization that had progressed (scientifically) to the point where no more research/scientific inquiry etc was required. (there were other societal changes involved too, but lets skip that). The result was that most of the population became artists (Horrors!!) and creators of abstract thought. To cut a long story short, NOT trying to figure out things we do not know drove an entire civilization numb with boredom and stagnation!

    :) I know I am deliberately ignoring your point about the role of scientists in public policy, which is quite valid, but lets not talk about stopping research all right? I need my daily bread too :)

  2. My artwork is completely unrelated to boredom and stagnation!

    Don't miss the opportunity to protest Rick Snyder at UM on April 30th.

    || POWER FIST as text

  3. Well said! This sounds similar to my reasoning for not going into the sciences in the first place, actually, but there is definitely something to be said for the amount of credit society gives to scientists as opposed to social and environmental activists.