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The value—and risk—of activism

Groves and Oppenheimer, 9-11-45
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory / Flickr

For many people deeply engaged with ideas, involvement in social and political causes is a natural extension of their thoughts, values, and identity. But, “academics who champion causes may be gambling with their careers,” Audrey Williams June reported last week in an article at The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required).

“Scholar-activists must be ready to fend off the perception that their activism taints their scholarship, or that they’re going to indoctrinate students. Another challenge is time: Some academics struggle to contain their work in the community to do what’s needed to advance professionally,” June writes. The challenge is especially big for those who have not yet attained tenure, as they both lack the protections of a secure job and need to compile an impressive record of academic accomplishment to get one.

The balance between professional advancement and personal commitment is a judgment that individuals must make for themselves.

“Many describe the life of a scholar and an activist as one of isolation and constant pressure, but also of determination,” as they try to maintain scholarly standards while also devoting time to activism, June writes. “Some give up their activism, for a while anyway,” she adds. But “[o]thers choose the hyphenated life, aware of the hazards but hopeful that if their scholarship measures up, their activism won’t count against them. Many look for ways to tie that work to their professional goals, optimistic that, at some point, their universities will acknowledge that.”

In March, in fact, Kenneth Gibbs, a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, suggested to Science Careers that universities should expand their criteria of scientific accomplishment to include scientists’ broader involvement in community and social causes. A few universities have already done so, June reports. “Some institutions and academic departments recognize ‘engaged scholarship,’ or research done in partnership with communities,” she writes. “Revised tenure policies at Michigan State, Portland State, and Syracuse Universities regard engaged scholarship as legitimate work. Syracuse’s faculty manual says the university is ‘committed to longstanding traditions of scholarship as well as evolving perspectives’ and will continue to ‘support scholars in all of these traditions, including faculty who choose to participate in engaged scholarship.’”

June’s article focuses on researchers in social science and the humanities, but researchers in the natural sciences also have a long history of involvement in political and social causes. In 1945, researchers working on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists because they “‘could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.’ The organization's early years chronicled the dawn of the nuclear age and the birth of the scientists’ movement, as told by the men and women who built the atomic bomb and then lobbied with both technical and humanist arguments for its abolition,” states the organization’s Web site. Established scientists like the late Barry Commoner have also played prominent roles in environmental activism.

In one particularly notorious case during the postwar McCarthyism hysteria over suspected communist infiltration of the United States, however, a personal position led to career disaster for a prominent scientist. In 1953, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer—who had directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were created, and who later headed the Atomic Energy Commission—lost his security clearance, and thus his ability to engage in research, because of accusations of disloyalty aroused by his opposition to developing the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer’s earlier history of associations with communist sympathizers and support of left-wing causes—common stances among intellectuals during the 1930s—provided ammunition to his political adversaries.

A book we reported on earlier this month by historian of science Alice Dreger also describes some severe personal and professional consequences suffered much more recently by scientists who became involved, through their research, in disputes with strong ideological and social overtones. 

The balance between professional advancement and personal commitment is a judgment that individuals must make for themselves. The question, writes June, quoting activist law professor Justin Hansford of St. Louis University, is “[h]ow important is this movement, and what are we willing to risk?”

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