Many years ago, I had a conversation with an older friend who had worked in both the corporate world and with civil society. I was then an entitled PhD student who firmly believed that we were the centre of the universe. During the course of our conversation, I found that we both used the words “activist” and “academic” frequently. Our categorisation of people as “academics” and “activists” was consistent. But where I used “academic” with a certain reverence, and “activist” with a hint of disdain, her tone was exactly reversed.

For me, academics were capable of thought, reflection and inference (whether they did or did not use it for the betterment of society was irrelevant), while activists were ideology- and agenda-driven, with relatively little rationality. For her, academics may have been respectable, but remained in their ivory towers with little concern for the world (life was academic), while activists (sure, there were good and bad ones) did something about the change in the real world.

In the 20-plus years since then, my perspective has changed somewhat. Not that I believe that one should not indulge in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It is in fact one of the inspirational aspects of the human endeavour, as are music, art and sports (though it receives much less money). But I also began to ask: what does it mean to be “academic” and more specifically, do we need to think about science and society differently? And in this post-Covid world, it is a question that has become that much more germane.

Science and society

First, though, it is important to examine what science is. While we use the word “science” liberally, philosophers will point out that we use the term interchangeably for three quite different meanings. First, there is the idealised view of science as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organises knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions” about the universe (ie how we think science should be done, or the process of science).

Second, it is the body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be “rationally explained and reliably applied” (i.e. what science has generated, or the products of science). Finally, it is also applied to the activities of practitioners of science or scientists, in other words, what nerds, geeks and other weirdos do (ie the society of science or its people).

As one can imagine, each of these has very different causes and consequences, especially with regard to the multiple roles that science plays in society. For the most part, science is viewed in its first two meanings. It is to understand the world and create useful products and is synonymous with technology and innovation. Even basic science is deemed necessary because this is the foundation from which all else derives.

However, this is not the only role that science plays in society. For hundreds of years, it has provided an alternative to faith-based explanations of the world and other such dogmas. Whether this is beneficial for progress is a separate question, but it has provided a platform for rational thought and a vehicle for promoting these values in society.

Finally, it is a social enterprise – and economic to different degrees – that offers jobs and careers. It is also an aspirational field that offers prestige and fame (if not fortune) that are both valued social signals. Beyond all this, there is an intangible value not dissimilar to music and the arts that it enjoys because of social and state patronage.

Participants in the March for Science in 2017. Credit: Master Steve Rapport, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

One can argue about the relative contributions of these different roles but there is little doubt that they collectively constitute a valuable service to society. The view of scientists as “academics” places the emphasis of its contribution to innovation, but there is evidence that we are not fulfilling that role nearly as well as we think we are. Rather, perhaps innovation in science can be (or is already being) achieved without academic institutions or at least with much less of them.

Democratising science

Then the other roles that academics play become that much more important. However, if we are to accept those other roles, then the line between the “academic” and “activist” becomes blurred. Academics in scientific disciplines need to ask themselves if they are contributing to the different spheres of their influence, and sufficiently engaging with society. Even if their products are not curing cancer/Covid-19 or solving superconductivity, there is still a critical role for them.

However, this view also necessitates the opposite transformation. We need to democratise science so that it is available to citizens and communities across the board. As much as leaders across the world may point to the contrary, science may well be de facto lingua franca of the state and can serve as a link between state, society and scientists. In this world, the academic becomes more activist, and the activist more academic.

For the young researcher, the canonical view of science and academia implies that a certain type of formal training – a PhD specifically – is necessary for progress in science. There are a number of fields where there seems to be an unwritten belief that a PhD is required to attain a certain stature.

This seems to be the case in my field of interest, conservation, and perhaps in environmental sustainability as a whole and is certainly the case in India. I would argue that a conventional PhD is certainly not required for the most effective contributions, and may in fact be a considerable hindrance since it defines narrowly the goal of the endeavour ie to create more academics – even if not all succeed. There may be alternate pathways that still incorporate a strong element of the scientific process, so that the process of research and learning derives from the purpose, and are nuanced to meet the needs of the system and goal of the researcher.

In closing, I would submit that academics have remained too long in their ivory towers, thanks to an illusory sense of their role in society. On the other hand, science has largely been perceived as technology by society, rather than as a way of thinking about and understanding the world. We need to blur the binaries between “thinking” and “acting” to benefit both science and society.

Kartik Shanker is faculty at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and Founder Trustee of Dakshin Foundation, Bangalore.