July 19, 2017

Advocacy and Activism – what they mean, why they matter

Posted by Laura Guertin

Recently, I attended a conference on sustainability in higher education. There was a session at the conference titled “Activism in the Academy” that had a room filled to capacity with participants eager to share their stories and viewpoints on the subject. What we quickly realized is that although we were all speaking about the same general topic, we were interchanging our vocabulary and not working from a common set of definitions.

The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the two terms as follows:

Advocacy – the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal

Activism – a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue

*Interestingly, “advocacy” is currently in the top 20% of words looked up on their website, and “activism” is in the bottom 40% of searched words.

An advocate is someone like The Lorax, who speaks on behalf of a person, group or an organization (in this case, The Lorax speaks for the trees). An activist is someone that takes intentional action to bring about change, typically social or political.

Where do scientists fit in to all of this? Is being an advocate or activist good or bad? Can/should scientists speak up and get involved? Parson (2016) published an article in Frontiers in Marine Science titled “Advocacy” and “Activism” Are Not Dirty Words–How Activists Can Better Help Conservation Scientists. Meyers et al. (2010) echos the benefits of science-based advocacy in Above the din but in the fray: environmental scientists as effective advocates. These articles are just a couple of examples of the many surveys and studies on science, advocacy and activism.

Both scientists and the public overwhelmingly say it is appropriate for scientists to become active in political debates about such issues as nuclear power or stem cell research. Virtually all scientists (97%) endorse their participation in debates about these issues, while 76% of the public agrees. — Pew Research Center (2009)

For those concerned about professional repercussions for entering the advocacy/activism arena, “our results show that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community” (see Kotcher et al., 2017). Crawford et al. (2016) surveyed wildlife and natural resource students and professionals and found disagreement about what actions constitute advocacy and what roles are acceptable for scientists, but agreement that scientists should engage in advocacy to influence policy.

Certainly, many scientists are either at the edge of the water or fully jumping in to being advocates for science. Whether it was participating in the March for Science or calling the office of local legislators, or even helping students advocate for the Earth, scientists are finding a pathway and comfort level with their own engagement level. Organizations such as 500 Women Scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists are hosting advocacy days and webinars to help scientists become more involved. And AGU is certainly active on this front (see the resources on the Science Is Essential section of the AGU website).

When I ask my students if they speak up for a cause or something they strongly believe in, many will say they don’t think their voice matters or that they can make a difference. I encourage you to show those students (and friends, neighbors, family members, etc.) this video of what a 13-year-old girl did with a toy company and an Easy Bake Oven… despite the obstacles, despite how “haters gonna hate.”