Science as an act of hope

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This blog was originally posted on Medium here

I gave a talk recently about linking science with action. In it, I posed the question: What makes science valuable to society?

My answer: Because the world is so much bigger than us… And yet we’re in the driver’s seat.

Reflect on that for a moment, and what it might mean to you. To me, it was an articulation of something I struggle with often, which is the fact that because of anthropogenic carbon emissions, we humans are driving Earth’s overall trajectory. And yet, within that trajectory there is much we don’t know about how severe the impacts will be or exactly how they’ll propagate through ecosystems on to human communities.

We are in a world we do not know. With atmospheric CO2 now exceeding 415 ppm we have crossed a threshold never before seen in human history. Add to that the last time this much carbon pollution was trapped in the atmosphere (around 3 million years ago) was driven by natural phenomena. What we have done in the last 150 years or so takes Earth thousands of years. The shear rate of change, thus the ability of species and ecosystems to deal with it, is unprecedented.

So where do scientists fit in confronting that or any societal problem? What can we do? A very simple thing that many already do, but I think deserves to be called out: Embrace as part of our professional identities that of public servant. As doing science and sharing it… sharing IN it… with managers, policymakers, stakeholders, our communities and more is an act of hope. It is an act of empowerment.

Science is ultimately about learning about how the world — ecosystems, habitats, communities, and animals (us included) — works and interacts. In this pursuit lies the potential to power and accelerate solutions. In this pursuit lies the potential to illuminate different solution options. Bring scientists together in this pursuit with the broader community and you have the potential to confront change honestly, recognize not only our culpability but also our agency in it, and make better choices — even when that inevitably involves difficult tradeoffs.

While for many scientists that might not change the research they do, it will change how they do it. Practically speaking it’s about alignment: How science and scientists can be better aligned with society’s needs and the processes by which society makes decisions. I plan to explore what this looks like more in future posts.

For now, science has never really been separate from that, but at times it felt to me like we thought we were. That engaging too closely would somehow pollute the pursuit of knowledge. Rather, the more we acknowledge our place as active contributors, and by extension our responsibility to be public servants, the better equipped we will be to help put that knowledge to use.