The role of a scientist in the current societal challenges


Prof. Dr. Tsjalling Swierstra joined the A12 blockade in September, 2023, because he was inspired by the actions of Extinction Rebellion and felt that he had to contribute. He was there wearing his academic gown to represent scientific knowledge. According to Tsjalling we have reached a point where there is no disagreeing anymore. He says that it is the mission of any university to help create a better society by doing scientific and technological research. So we have to ask ourselves the question: “What will we do about it now?” For Tsjalling it starts with the experience that you as an individual can make a little bit of difference. “It’s a very complex dynamic we are facing right now, but it's not without hope.”


The role of science and technology in global warming

Tsjalling decided to join the protest as a scientist. “I felt that science and technology have a special obligation to help fight global warming, at least in two senses. First, if you look at the fossil economy, it's enabled and driven by science and technology. The rise of modern science and technology are entangled with the fossilisation of the economy, which brought us to where we are. Because science and technology were part of the problem, we should also think about how we can be part of the solution. The second reason is that global warming is a weird phenomenon, because in a sense it largely escapes everyday experience. Global warming only exists in the public imagination. It's thanks to the work of scientists and technologists that it's visible. They do the calculations to connect all kinds of disparate phenomena and show us the causes behind those phenomena. Think about it. Global warming in the Netherlands so far mainly manifests itself in the form of nice warm summers. And who's going to complain about that, right?  So, ordinary experience will never propel us into the necessary action until it is far too late. You need science to see what's really happening. So I feel that there's really an obligation for science to come up with the definitions and explanations that can help us identify what's going on and to help us find solutions. Part of those solutions have to come from better technology, sustainable technology.”

Truth to power

The rise of modern science and technology has led us to where we are and yet, science can also help us to identify what’s going on and to search for solutions. Tsjalling doesn’t believe this is incompatible with the quest for pure knowledge, that many think is the main task of the university. He points out that a lot of academic research has always been propelled by societal, often economic, needs and values. But indeed, the university is more than the handmaiden of social and economic interests. “Despite the fact that the economy influences on what’s being researched at universities, there's also a more ideal side to the university and that is that the university is a place where you can speak truth to power. It's a bit old-fashioned maybe, but I do feel that there's this mission for a university to do just that and to advise even if the advice is not being sought or is not being paid for or is not being desired even.”

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Because science and technology were part of the problem, we should also think about how we can be part of the solution.
foto protest

Humanities’ contribution to climate change

When dealing with climate change, there's an interesting question involved, that according to Tsjalling can be dealt with by the social sciences and the humanities: if we all know what's going to happen, why don't we spring into action collectively? What is holding us back?

“Slavery was accepted for a long time, until there was a moral revolution and people realised: how have we been able to do and accept that? In the 20th century there was the feminist revolution, and more recent, the acceptance of homosexuality and sexual diversity. Initially, these forms of oppression were perceived as cultural and social structures that were unchangeable. But suddenly, in a few decades, there seems to be a tipping point and then things can unravel quite quickly.” Tsjalling thinks that for example, historians, sociologists, psychologists, cultural theorists, ethicists, philosophers, can help us understand under what conditions we were able to muster the collective energy to create such revolutionary changes in our experiences and actions.

The sustainable university of the future

Soon, Maastricht University will start dialogue sessions on whether and how to continue the cooperation with partners in the fossil industry. To Tsjalling one of the questions that should be debated is: what would the sustainable university of the future look like? “We have this mission of becoming sustainable. So what does that imply indeed for how we draw students, how we collaborate internationally and what our footprint is?” He continues: “Universities rely on mass education, a lot of international students, a lot of academic travel as well, conferences, etc. So we as academics also thrived thanks to fossil fuel and the growth that fossil fuel has brought to society. Right now we have to ask ourselves: is it worth the footprint? 

Under what conditions are we able to muster the collective energy to create revolutionary change?

Going forward by envisioning an alternate future

Despite the public actions and awareness that’s being raised, people are still looking away. Do actions like those of Extinction Rebellion have the effect that you want them to have? Tsjalling: “Well, simply telling people how bad the situation is, doesn't work. And simply asking them to imagine the coming apocalypse doesn't work either. Mind you, we are not even talking about the future anymore. Right now the consequences are no longer long-term. They are manifesting already, here and now. But even then, we still have difficulty to change our established ways of living. Like people used to look at God to save them, now people have unrealistic expectations of technology.”
For Tsjalling answering the question "What will propel us into action?" is imperative. He continues: “Under what conditions became it suddenly self-evident that slavery was wrong? One of the explanations is that slavery only became wrong at the moment people could imagine an alternative to it. This is probably generalisable: people only spring into action to change the present when they feel that there's a practical alternative.”
Tsjalling concludes that envisioning an alternate future and working on solutions generates the hope we need. “What always strikes me is that if I go to, let's say, a conference in Delft on circular economy, all the students at technical universities are often astutely aware of what's happening. But that is also because they are happily working on solutions to avoid the catastrophe. They can allow themselves to acknowledge global warming, because they can envision a solution. But if you can't envision a solution, there's no bonus on acknowledging the problem. Practical engagement thus presupposes some hope, but it also generates hope.”

By Sustainable UM 2030, Sandy Langenhuizen and Clarence Bluntz

People only spring into action to change the present when they feel that there's a practical alternative.

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