Home » Be a Science Activist: Tim Dixon at TEDxCERN (Transcript)

Be a Science Activist: Tim Dixon at TEDxCERN (Transcript)


What’s the next great revolution in science? Is it nano-bots cruising our blood stream, wiping out cancer cells? Solutions to global hunger? Is it a clean energy revolution that delivers 100% renewable energy? Maybe it’s applications of theoretical quantum mechanics, that transcend us since of temporality and the universal human spatial geography, or as they say in the movies, time travel. Or maybe, it’s some of that amazing research that’s being done by scientists in Edinburgh with a new bio-film protein to see if we can extend the melting of ice cream.

Or maybe, it’s just video conferencing technology that actually works. Whatever it is, we live in an extraordinary time of change and scientific discovery, and progress; a golden age that can deliver so much for the common good. But will that happen? That depends on how well we’re guided by the science and especially those in power. But more and more, the authority of science is being challenged. One person’s anti-science opinion based on something they read on the Internet, or something that just concocted to suit their own agenda gets as much air time as someone else’s based on decades of peer-reviewed research.

These false equivalency debates play out on the airwaves everyday, and they’re driving some alarming trends. Science budgets are being slashed. Scientific advice is losing traction with decision makers, because they think the public just doesn’t care. Look to America. Since 2010, the budget sequester has cut 24 billion dollars from science funding.

Senior members of Congress want the power to veto any science funding that they dislike, such as all of climate science. State governors ban even the use of the words “climate change” and “global warming” by their environmental agencies. Presidential candidates advance their aspirations by completely confounding medical science and coddling the anti-vaccination movement, or putting perfectly healthy people into quarantine in the middle of the Ebola scare. And it’s not just America. Science budgets are being slashed from Britain, France, the European Union, across to Canada, Brazil, United States, and Australia.

Other governments are clamping down on science. Russia has shut down the top private science foundation. Turkey’s government has seized control of its Science Academy and jailed independent scientists. It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 20th century, it was different; science captured the public imagination.

People believed that science could advance the interests of humanity. Science had a vision for the future of civilization. Millions of people went to the world’s fair event. Children got science kits for Christmas. I grew up wanting to be an astronaut, eating space food sticks and astronaut ice cream which never melts.

But things have changed. Well, there were the kooks and the anti-science crowds then, but they didn’t have a grip on power. Now, things are different; and the challenge in the digital age is to turn that around because we need science. Science needs to have the cultural authority, the respect, and resources that it once had to embrace the challenges that humanity now faces. Of course science has many assets, has wonderful science communicators like Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Cox. It has got a committed following, and some fantastic television shows and movies.

But science doesn’t currently possess the mainstream cultural imagination of the West. In the digital age, it will require more than just marketing and public relations because the dynamics of power and influence have changed so much. Culture change now is driven much less by elites and much more by the crowd, by people-powered movements. We have seen the power of movements throughout history. It took a movement to end the slave trade, a movement to enact civil rights, and to advance equality for women.

But today we’re seeing the rise of 21st century movements that are more nimble, more global, and lighter. These movements are able to coordinate and mobilize people in an instant, and sometimes achieve sweeping changes almost overnight. I am convinced that people power could be the most positive force for social change in the 21st century. That’s why I walked out in my job working with the prime minster to work and dedicate my time to movement building. Because I told myself, “I don’t want to just work the system. I want to help to change the world.” I’ll give you one example.

I’ve been working to mobilize people in the crisis in Syria for the past two years. We’ve run a whole bunch of campaigns, mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, and in the midst of a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, at least achieve some small positive gains. But all of that impact was eclipsed in a moment by one photograph, a haunting photograph, of the little boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore.

Suddenly, the world awoke to the crisis, and European governments acted in ways that they’d said were impossible just a few days before. Why? What happened? It was because a 21st century movement arose. It started with small acts of compassion: German families welcoming in refugees at Munich railway station with bottles of water, sweets, and balloons. And then it just caught fire across a continent creating the space and the pressure for governments to act with compassion. But it’s not just social movements that understand people power, business is being transformed as well.

Airbnb is now the world’s largest provider of accommodation, Uber is the most valuable startup in history, and there is a myriad of crowdfunding platforms that are revolutionizing funding for innovation and the arts. So, what could it be like if science could harness people power? What would it look like if science embraced the gravitational force of movement building? There is no formula for building a movement, and no two movements look alike. So, we’re not talking about millions of people marching out on the streets for mitochondria; but the potential is there, if across the ecosystem of science, the power of movement thinking can be harnessed. So let me ground that in a few practical examples.

Firstly, communicate a cause. Science has always had an amazing cause: the quest to unlock the secrets of the Universe, to deepen an appreciation for our existence, to improve life upon the planet. Science also has a powerful cause for future generations to overcome ignorance, prejudice, and the cover ups as science has done in the past with big tobacco, with polluting industries, and is doing now with the fossil fuel firms who funds so much pseudoscience.

Two; tell a powerful story; find ways to connect science to the big questions of our age. What’s wrong in our world? What do we need to do? Science had a very powerful story in the 20th century, but that’s not the story for now – the triumphalist’s story of the 1950s – it needs to be different, it needs to resonate with the 21st century audience.

Three; engage people emotionally. The generation that saw Neil Armstrong land on the Moon, remember that moment forever because emotions are so much more powerful than just facts; this potential to engage people and to touch them, through their hopes and dreams, and the things they value the most, with science. For example, 600,000 people just participated in a massive crowd-sourced science monitoring experiment in Britain called the Big Garden Birdwatch. Why? Not because the British are suddenly interested in changing migratory patterns of birds. But because there is no force more powerful to move the emotions of the British than their gardens.

Four: harness the power of social networks, not hierarchies. Obviously, research papers and formal lecture series are not the way to reach the broader public. We need to reach people where they are: in their social networks, the places where they engage with new ideas form their identities, meet other people. Those networks are being powerfully used by the anti-science groups to spread their nonsense; they can be used even more powerfully for science. It strikes me as a movement builder that science has a lot of very deeply committed networks of people but often they’re in silos. What would it mean, if some of those networks could be brought together and mobilized for a larger cause?

Five: build broad coalitions. Don’t just reach out to the already committed and already interested. Create unexpected alliances. Think of how the HIV/AIDS cause was transformed 15 years ago when an unexpected ally came on board. The story of mother-to-baby transmission converted religious conservatives from being challengers to becoming champions and suddenly, there was this broad coalition from physicians, and the LGBT community, to evangelicals.

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