Scholar Activism in a STEM Career

“I don’t want to be lying on my deathbed realizing I lived my whole life for my CV.” 

When my ecologist friend said this, she gave me chills. It succinctly summed up my own internal wrestling with how I can continue as a respected scholar but still make a difference. She shared this in an interview with me for a project intended to explore public engagement with science. But by the end of our conversations, the project ended up revealing more around how young professionals define themselves and relate to their work. 

Along with the woman quoted above, I interviewed two other female scientists, who are friends and colleagues with expertise ranging from social to natural sciences. The interviews led me to feel even greater camaraderie with these friends, and let me take a sigh of relief that I wasn’t the only one reckoning with my positionality as a scholar and activist. The overarching theme became how we all work to fit our research, activism, and sense of self into our field. 

The overarching theme became how we all work to fit our research, activism, and sense of self into our field.

All three colleagues shared that they are working to understand how we can balance “making a difference,” or scholar activism, with doing respected scholarly work in our various fields of study. A couple of us have intentionally already found ways to integrate activism into our other identities, but others are wrestling to find how it best fits, and how it is “allowed” to fit, within certain disciplines. While we all relate to activism and academia in different ways, here I advocate for the possibilities for all of us (including you!) identifying as scholar-activists within STEM. 

What is scholar activism?

Many justice scholars, especially in my world of environment and tourism, assume an identity of scholar-activist. As someone who researches social justice of tourism development, with a formal education in interdisciplinary environmental studies, I often look for role models in this field. 

A scholar-activist identity demonstrates a move from theory to practice for scholars. These scholars aim to create on-the-ground change for the communities with whom they work. Dr. Lisette Torres, a trained scientist whose research addresses social justice in education, exemplifies how science and activism can coexist in practice. Other scholars who situate themselves as scholar-activists work with nonprofit organizations and policymakers to change policy so that it more fully centers local priorities and indigenous ways of knowing. All such work, sometimes referred to as engaged scholarship, has goals that move beyond academic publications or theoretical frameworks, aiming to make direct impacts on people’s lives.

I aspire my own scholar activism not only to impact people’s lives, but also to democratize research. As a qualitative social scientist focused on justice, I try to center the experiences and voices of people in the communities in which I research. For example, I used a grassroots and outcome-oriented approach for my doctoral research on Catalina Island, California, through writing editorials and letters to the editor in the local newspaper, developing the questions for my project alongside community members, presenting results to community leaders, and repeatedly consulting community members on what just tourism development looks like for them in their community. This kind of approach provides residents with opportunities to define the bounds of the research project. It also refines how scholars can use their academic privilege in ways that are actually relevant to the residents with whom they are trying to build solidarity (Alcoff, 1991). 

I aspire my own scholar activism not only to impact people’s lives, but also to democratize research.

Are activism and academia compatible?

While certain fields do explicitly call for more engaged scholarship, multiple women whom I interviewed shared that doing such work is treated as tangential to scholarship, and not as furthering one’s career. One interviewee said: 

“I don’t think that [activism] is valued. When you let those emotions and the politics of the situation drive the work, people look down on it. If we are really talking about working with people and changing their lives and improving people’s lives, you have to be like that. I don’t think it works if all that you’re doing is publishing papers and getting awards, and looking cool ‘cuz you added things to your CV. That’s how I think a lot of academics are, it’s really frustrating.”

Finding a place where research and activism are equally respected is difficult. While I may find this overwhelming at times, the more traditional STEM fields pride themselves in objectivity to such an extent that it further reduces the possibilities for scholars to envision how activism can become a part of their work. A sense that success in academia is distinct from the goals of engaged scholarship came up repeatedly in my interviews, and revealed how we all see this singular understanding of success as not allowing us to define what we would define as our own success based on our goals. 

Finding a place where research and activism are equally respected is difficult.

Another woman I spoke with shared how she incorporates subjectivity and personal interests into communicating her research, since she is limited in her ability to define the overarching research questions of her lab. She has found a space for activism around greater inclusion in the sciences through practicing intentionally inclusive science communication. This is one way to bring what you are passionate about into the overall research process, making it align with the scholarly and publication goals of your department or lab and the personal interests you have that may be seen as external to the academy. She explained how science and activism coexist for her:

It was a mistake to ever think that they were separate things. I think that it’s not just those two silos of information, I think people come with such important aspects of their personality that drives why they’re interested in science. And part of what interested me in science was the activism side and being able to communicate science in an effective way and do science that meant something. Which I think is what drove me into environmental science. For me, yes, they definitely go together.”

While we are still working on the best ways to bring scholarship and activism together in our identities, our conversation revealed how essential it is for all of us to move from the purely “academic” and theoretical space to a more engaged place in our research. I encourage anyone feeling disconnected from their work to actively incorporate more engaged practices into your research. Inclusive communication practices, inclusive and decolonized research design, and intentionally embodying a scholar-activist identity are all methods to bring academia and activism into conversation. 

Inclusive communication practices, inclusive and decolonized research design, and intentionally embodying a scholar-activist identity are all methods to bring academia and activism into conversation.

As long as you are doing work to intentionally make an impact on people’s lives, be it at an interpersonal, policy, or systems-level, you too can call yourself a scholar-activist; there’s no special training required. It may feel like a bold move to explicitly bring activism into your work, but being bold is what it takes to rise up and incite change to better our world. 

Science Rising is a network of partners and advocates coming together for one purpose: to fight for science, justice, and equity in our democracy leading up to the 2020 election. Anyone can participate in Science Rising. Learn more at www.ScienceRising.org.

Kaytee Canfield
Kaytee Canfield

Dr. Canfield is an interdisciplinary scholar activist working across fields of public engagement, environmental justice, and critical tourism studies. After recently completing her Marine Affairs doctorate on residents' perceptions of social injustices of tourism development on Catalina Island, California, she has been working with the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island, researching inclusive science communication. This fall she begins a postdoctoral fellowship on translational science with the Environmental Protection Agency.

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