Joseph Lewis & Ellie Savage
August 2023

Where do we draw the line between science and activism?

Climate protest and research laboratory with three red lines between them

Since the first environmental movements were formed, they have always had an interdependent relationship with science, drawing on scientific insights to drive environmental action.

Over time, while the core link between environmental science and environmental activists has remained, the interdependency has been replaced with a less direct relationship. Science is now one of many sources of knowledge underpinning environmental movements, such as indigenous knowledge, communications insights, and lived experiences.

There may be times when the environmental sciences are not good allies for environmental activists, as suggested by SOS-UK activist El Andrade May at the IES’s Burntwood Lecture in 2022. Science can be inconvenient for campaigns which rely on clear and consistent messaging; it can be too complex to easily summarise for limited attention spans; and it can introduce caveats to, or distract from, the solutions which activists seek. Similarly, scientists can find themselves torn between a desire to support action on the natural systems they work with and a hesitance to associate their work directly with activism, mindful of the lines of appropriateness between scientific research and political conversations.

In that context, environmental science finds itself pulled in multiple directions, posing the question: where does environmental science sit amidst professional science, environmental activism, and political debate?

This article is part of our Future of ES23 horizon scanning & foresight project on the future of the environmental sciences. Find out more about the project and how you can get involved.

There are no clean lines between environmental scientists, activists, communities, and those engaged in politics. Often, these are overlapping social worlds and many of those who consider themselves activists are also scientists, professionals, or members of a community. 

Those lines are only likely to grow more blurred as environmental issues become more endemic and imperative to determining the future of our world. To that end, we must continue to imagine ways that we can grapple with the challenge of remaining neutral and authoritative while also being relevant to a world rife with environmental problems.

To achieve that goal, it is fundamental that we embrace openness, transparency, and collaboration. We should break down the barriers between the natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering, while improving the relationships between science, policy, the public, professionals, and industry. The value of having broad and diverse connections will be essential to ensuring that our discussions about contentious environmental issues bring people together, rather than dividing them.

What next?

Over the next few months, the IES will conclude its Future of ES23 horizon scanning & foresight project by producing a thought-leading vision for the future of the environment, which will help environmental scientists to plan ahead and co-produce a shared vision for the future of the environmental sciences.

If you want to be part of that vision, you can: