Does climate activism help or hinder an academic career?

Scientists involved in road-blocking and invading private jet terminals say they’ve lost out on promotions and been reported by students but others cite their protests in grant applications as forms of research output

August 23, 2023
Police officers try to prevent Scientist Rebellion activists from throwing red paint at the exterior of the Spanish Parliament to protest climate change, in Madrid, Spain, April 6, 2022
Source: Reuters
White-coated activists: members of Scientist Rebellion in Spain throw red paint at the parliament building in Madrid

Frustration with institutional inertia and delayed impact has pushed some climate activists out of academia, but those who remain are hopeful their troublemaking will not only bring change, but may even help their careers.

Direct action groups set up to force the world to pay attention to the climate crisis have attracted academics in healthy numbers in recent years, but their efforts to make a difference have elicited mixed responses among colleagues and senior management.

Niels Debonne, part of the Dutch chapter of the campaign group Scientist Rebellion, whose members don white coats to block motorways and private jet terminals, said he felt such protests should be acknowledged as a form of science communication.

“In grant applications I tend to add some lines on my activism to demonstrate my societal engagement. So far, that has been received well by committee members,” the assistant professor of environmental geography at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) added.

He is hopeful the success of his recent campaigning, which saw VUA cut research ties with fossil fuel companies that do not commit to carbon neutral energy, will also be admitted as an output.

That campaign led to angry but polite emails from VUA colleagues funded by the industry, and left Dr Debonne feeling “very uncomfortable” about his major grant proposal being reviewed by others with similar ties, although he does not think it influenced their decision.

He said mixing activism with his professional life had come with subtle penalties. “It’s not the big things, it’s not landing in jail that gets you in trouble. It’s sending the email saying, ‘I’m not coming because I don’t want to fly to the United States for this.’”

“Your work is not just about papers and the promotions you get, it’s also about whether you still have a good time at the coffee machine,” he added. “When I did my ‘coming out’ as an activist, a year ago or something, that is when lots of friction happened, and certain people didn’t want to see me that much any more.”

Being shunned can kill the spontaneous conversations that can germinate new research, while friction can also trigger more formal investigations. Nana-Maria Grüning, an academic at Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin and part of Scientist Rebellion Germany, has been the subject of anonymous complaints to her HR department about her direct action protests, and from students when she mentioned climate in a seminar on another topic.

Neither led to a penalty, but resolving them ate into research and teaching time. “These types of complaints happen, normally without severe consequences, but they are always upsetting and require a lot of work to respond to them,” she said.

Those sensitised to the urgency of the climate emergency say the costs of doing nothing would be even greater. “Awareness about the situation has influenced my work in the sense that I often doubt its importance,” said Dr Grüning. “For what kind of world are we generating knowledge?”

For Leo van Kampenhout, modelling the climate for his postdoc at Utrecht University was not enough. “With every hour in my day I want to be as effective as possible. I had this feeling when being a researcher I was not being effective enough. That was demotivating.”

He quit his contract early and co-founded the Netherlands’ chapter of the campaign group Scientists4Future, also working full time for the NGO Fossielvrij NL, researching and campaigning on making the Netherlands’ natural and refined gas infrastructures compatible with a low-carbon economy.

For those activists who remain in academia, there can be unexpected benefits. Dr Debonne has broadened his connections with those in other disciplines and a 2023-24 interdisciplinary undergraduate programme on the Anthropocene would not have come together without such links, he said.

The level of scepticism in the wider population also means academics must redouble the rigour they bring to writing campaign materials.

“I have been in universities for over 20 years and I’m really impressed with the research process I’ve seen in Scientist Rebellion,” said Laura Horn, an associate professor in global political economy at Roskilde University. “You have a group of people putting in a lot of time and effort to make sure everything the group says is fact checked and counter checked.”

If the sight of white coats at Scientist Rebellion’s upcoming actions this September changes some hearts and minds, those risking arrest and career disruption will likely count the costs as worth paying.

“Whether activism really sits in that sphere along with outreach is, I think, still a bit up for debate, but participating in the policy process inside and outside the university, I do see it as part of my academic life,” said Anne Urai, an assistant professor of cognitive psychology at Leiden University.

“I have the optimistic view that it will be seen as something positive, like sticking your neck out, in the long run. That is a risk, but one that seems like quite a reasonable one to take at the moment.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (4)

Climate change activists might have more impact if they targeted industry and commerce rather tnan individual cconsumers driving down the M25 to work/school/hospital - which consumers are already concerned about the financial impact of heat pumps, electric cars, ULEZ etc. This might alienate people rather than recruit them to the climate cause. Where are the climate change protestors targetting 'unecessary' goods and services, e.g. the excess plastic packaging at supermarkets, the burgeoning beauty industry, fast fashion, the software-drive obsolescence in the tech industry, the high level of rail fares (more than a plane ticket), and much much else.
Well, all the things you mention have been tried and done. The fact that you are not aware proves the point that protests at, e.g., fossil fuel plants do not create the required public awareness and are widely ignored by the public (and the media). That's the reason behind the current tactics. The only way to make change happen is to raise public awareness, which may lead to a change in public opinion, which is the only bin-violent way to change politics in a democratic society. Suffragetes were a public nuisance, as were abolitionist, civil rights activists, and all the others we now call heros. Some of them also used many not quite so peaceful tactics in their struggles.
Climate change activists - particularly those with scientific research training - would have more impact if they proposed sustainable alternatives to any activity they denigrate, preferably ones that do not make life more difficult or expensive. Strident antics reinforce the all-too-common view of loony eco-warriors as people prepared to go to great expense and spend loads of time to be more sustainable. Most of us don't go that far. We'd like to live more sustainably but the ways to do so are too expensive and require more effort than we are willing to put in.
They do. Many movements work very hard to propose policy changes, provide evidence, alternatives, suggestions. They are by and large ignored, because they aren't likely to have leverage. Chances are that the people you see actually putting their skins on the line in the streets, risking their reputations or careers, see no other alternative. The resulting "public view" that is published in the media is a game of PR. Both sides of the argument understand that - there is always a difference between appearance and factual reality.