The Big Interview: Should doctors and scientists get involved in environmental protest?

Should experts stick to the research, or engage with direct and disruptive action to highlight key issues like the climate crisis and air pollution? We take the question to one of those on the frontline of green science.

It’s not every day you get a leading climate scientist on the phone to discuss protests while the UK capital is grinding to a halt because of activists and their actions. Suffice to say, it’s best to make the most when it happens.

Senior lecturer in Environmental Toxicology at Imperial College, London, Dr. Ian Mudway also works with a number of health research units, including MRC Centre for Environmental Health, and specialises in understanding chemical radiation threats like low altitude and ground level ozone pollution. But we’re not really here to talk CVs.

group of people on the street

Instead, we’re listening to what he has to say about scientists and doctors participating in direct action aimed at forcing policy changes to address the climate crisis. As we speak, several members of Just Stop Oil are suspended from London’s Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, blocking one of the busiest routes in the city to reiterate that time is quickly running out for humanity to change  course and mitigate the worst fallout from the ecological emergency. 

‘We’re going to see more demonstrations around issues like climate and air pollution, because there is a growing gap between rhetoric and the reality of how things are progressing,’  Mudway says. ‘Within this there’s a real debate about the extent to which scientists and medical professions should be involved in these actions. For me, the reality is that scientists and the medical community must be present at all levels of this. 

‘Of course, there are some scientists who are effectively working civil service roles. Within government committees, for example. They obviously cannot take direct action in this way because of the way they are operating within government. They’re trying to advise, to nudge,’ he continues. ‘But after that, I find it strange that this question exists. There should be no fear, no resentment at the fact some of the people demonstrating are profoundly in-thought. The kickback against scientists and doctors worries me a little, because they know what they’re talking about.’

Mudway goes on to explain that, while few outside the science community realise it, academics now feel that part of their responsibility is to push young science talent towards research that is specifically aimed at influencing policy change, and engages with the public. In itself a form of direction action, although more discreetly disruptive compared to activist marches, for him it’s as much about proving value for tax spend as it is trying to prove beyond doubt that current strategies are still failing to respond with appropriate urgency. 

‘If the general public is paying for your science, the general public needs to know what you’re doing. You need to be out there communicating,’ Mudway says, explaining this viewpoint is shared by many research councils. ‘In a sense, they are doing that when they attend these demonstrations, or if they give satellite presentations, or talks. Or they’re put up in front of the media to answer questions. In that role, I think they’re really important, because I think they help industry illustrate that the demonstrations are informed by evidence, not by polarised political opinion. The benefit of having scientists is they can say these are just cold facts. This is the fundamental reality.’

Read the full interview in our latest magazine issue, then revisit last month’s feature which asks if civil disobedience is the only course of action left to force through air pollution improvements.

Image: Mika Baumeister


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