How can and should scientists contribute to societal change?

Highlights from the DIT DAY 2022 - Imagining Science for Change

With societal challenges like climate change or rising inequality becoming more urgent, it is important to think about what science can do to contribute to tackling those challenges. What role can and should scientists take? This was the theme of the DIT DAY 2022, organized by the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform. Erasmians came together from across the campus to exchange ideas and collectively imagine what the future of science can look like.

The DIT DAY was the first event in a yearly series, all focusing on what a new role of science in society could look like. Attendees ranged from interested students, researchers, teachers and staff from different schools across the EUR, and societal stakeholders. In this blogpost I will give you some insight into the highlights of the day, featuring workshops, the power of music, and an all-female discussion panel on a new role of academia in society.

A musical opening

Already before the official start the location was buzzing like a beehive with people excited to be there, making first connections over lunch while more attendees arrived. Soon then, the official start of the DIT DAY was announced by Talitha Muusse and Derk Loorbach.

And what an opening it was! Featuring a surprising music experiment performed by Raw Resonance, your presence in this group of like-minded people became even more tangible, as your body and voice were used to create a common “DIT rhythm”.

Creative workshops

Given the theme of the DIT DAY, the day was all about creating a safe space for transformative academics. A space where you could make connections, exchange knowledge and views and assert hope in the difference that you can make as an individual in academia.

DIT’s hands-on approach and practical outlook was also reflected by the various workshops. The workshop topics ranged from assessing the impact of automation on the future to focusing on your inner development goals with regards to becoming a transformational leader. During those workshops, I felt like the input of all participants was valued and different perspectives were welcomed. Therefore, they were a great opportunity to take a step out of your comfort and knowledge zone, to interact with others, and learn about each other’s vision(s) of desirable futures.

How can and should scientist contribute to positive societal impact?

The central part of the day was no doubt the panel discussion with four outstanding panelists, Dr. Josephine Chambers, Professor Carola Hein, Dr. Julia Wittmayer, and Dr. Tessa Cramer, on the role of science in tackling complex societal changes. Moderated by Talitha Muusse, the discussion caught on many interesting and important issues, with some interesting input from the audience.

“Science has not done enough to influence society positively”

With this thought-provoking statement Talitha Muusse opened the discussion. While the panelists seemed to generally agree on this, Prof Hein put forward a counter position. According to her, science has actually done too much to influence society, for example by contributing to technologies to extract fossil fuels. She emphasized that it is important to understand how we “ended up in this mess”, by recognizing the path dependency of science itself.

How then can scientists influence society in a more positive way? Precisely by being aware of what their contribution exactly entails. Dr Wittmayer emphasized the importance of creating “open spaces” as academics, where people can freely discuss, consider, and negotiate many different desirable futures. Dr Chambers put forward that “scientists are often too quick to pin down the future”. They leave little space for different perspectives on the future and instead constantly move from identifying problems to solving them, without much consideration of desirable directions and public engagement. Dr Cramer remarked here that scientists also tend to have many assumptions about the different futures that we can imagine, so it is important to first investigate and question those assumptions before delving into visions. Prof Hein summed up this discussion perfectly by bringing forward the idea of “polyvocality”: the idea that we should embrace multiple voices and perspectives on what just and sustainable futures can look like.

Creating and finding a community for transformative academic work

A PhD student tuned in, describing her difficulty with doing transformative research as a young researcher, in a field where rules dictating what is “proper research” are already in place. The panelists pointed towards the importance of finding like-minded scholars to create a community, share concerns and support each other in one’s transformative work. The panel also remarked that “not fitting in” can also be a good place to be: it means you are joining a movement of academics that wants to do things differently.

Overall, this panel conversation made me realize that the DIT platform is doing precisely what is needed. DIT serves as a space where individuals from varying fields can contribute their knowledge and expertise to transform the university, and the role and impact of science more generally. DIT can be a starting point to transform science into a more accommodating place for new ideas and ways of doing research to create the knowledge needed for sustainability and positive change, both in academia and society.

The main take-away from the DIT DAY, from my perspective as a student, is that being surrounded by academics who have similar aims creates a resource to find backup and reassurance that your transformative ambitions are not naïve, but attainable and worth striving towards. 

About this blog

This blogpost was written by Jordis Wunder. They are a student-correspondent at the Design Impact Transition (DIT) platform, a strategic initiative from EUR aimed at supporting transformative education and research at the university. Jordis is following a double-degree programme in Philosophy at ESPhil. The DIT platform and BlueCity have teamed up with student-correspondents to spread the messages on circular economy and transformative academic work on the whole campus. Are you interested in the DIT platform and its mission? Or would you like to become a student-correspondent yourself? Then reach out to DIT, either online or by visiting them on the second floor of the Q-Building!

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