Should academics be activists?


My experience in public health began when I stepped into a position as a researcher and policy analyst with Action on Smoking & Health New Zealand in 2004. My previous position had been as a scientist with the Northern Territory Department of Environment, …I had a focus on weed management, plants out of control, not the smoke-able sort. Within the first month of starting at ASH I was asked to attend a meeting on smokeless tobacco or maybe it was a meeting on something else. It ended up being a debate on smokeless tobacco. After sitting silently (oh believe me I’ve changed) observing the debate for some time, someone had the temerity to ask me what I thought. I naively replied, well if it is something that is shown to be safer than cigarettes then it should be allowed in New Zealand? I had no history or understanding of the political nuances in tobacco control in New Zealand or indeed around the world at that time.

Should academics be activists is a good question. I don’t claim to know the answer. Here are some initial thoughts?

What exactly is an activist? According to the Cambridge dictionary definition pictured above when it applies to an academic it will be an academic “who believes in political or social change and takes part in activities such as public protests to try to make this happen.”

What is an academic? Who is an academic? Those questions are sort of rhetorical. There are academics in science through to arts including fine arts, performance arts. Some definitions of art suggest that art is a form of public protest, a rebellion against the status quo. Are the people who say that academics shouldn’t be activists suggesting that academics in performance arts aren’t permitted to do their jobs?

Anyway let’s get back to science. Academics in science. Are they allowed to be activists? Well that comes a bit down to the definition of a public protest doesn’t it. If a scientist makes a finding -say a scientist, Rowan Glen Lloyd, discovers water from certain taps carries disease which kills people. Ms Francis Butter is friends with Joe Mullins who is an MP. Mrs Francis Butter owns a lot of taps. Mrs Francis Butter is quite popular and she also has an acquaintance, Mrs Bessie Briggs. Mrs Bessie Briggs has quite a successful beer brewing business. Rowan Glen Lloyd likes playing cricket, watching footy and drinking water and beer. However Rowan on a weekday tells a few people including Joe Mullins that some taps are killing people. The taps which are a problem need closing so that people stop dying. Joe Mullins doesn’t do anything because Ms Butter threatens that she won’t be his friend with benefits anymore. So Rowan tells a few more people in order to prompt some much needed attention to tap closing. ┬áBessie Briggs finds out and sees a business opportunity and keeps telling everyone about Rowan’s finding including MP Josephine Bodmin who is in a different political party to Joe Mullins.

Rowan suggests turning some taps off in an effort to demonstrate with less doubt that taps are dangerous. Ms Butter has apoplexy and says her business will be ruined. At this point Joe Mullins has a bit of doubt, the shade of red that Ms Butter turned was a little alarming. He is contemplating supporting a tap experiment. However Bessie Briggs is going great guns with her own campaign to get taps closed. She’s yelling Rowan’s findings through all channels and telling everyone he’s a super bloke. Josephine Bodmin is also citing Rowan’s findings and giving Joe Mullins a hard time in the house.

Should Rowan keep doing his best to tell everyone what he thinks is the biggest risk to people’s life? Yes he fucking well should. Despite all the political shit that’s going on.

Comments & discussion welcome and will be published if it is respectful and not a personal attack.