It was during a car journey to California in temperatures sometimes exceeding 40 °C that Sophie Gilbert decided she needed to make a major career change.
Driving to visit family from her home in Moscow, Idaho, she passed columns of wildfire smoke, the oppressive heat limiting the time she could spend out of her air-conditioned car. The two-day drive midway through last year helped to crystallize a feeling that she urgently needed to do something more concrete to help deal with the threat of climate change.
“It hit at a gut level,” says Gilbert. “Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen to someone else later on. It felt deeply, viscerally real for me and my family and what I care about.”
Given her role as a wildlife ecologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow, it might seem that Gilbert was already well placed to have a positive impact on climate change. But the slow, incremental pace of academia, and the difficulty of getting policymakers to act on her findings, left her feeling that she was not making as much of a difference as she’d hoped.
“I’ve been studying how wildlife responds to environmental change to inform conservation planning for 15 years now, researching and publishing and waiting for something to happen and then having it not happen, even when I’ve worked closely with wildlife and land-management agencies,” she says. “The system just isn’t designed to respond to the urgent challenges we’re facing,” she says.
Gilbert took stock of her skills and knowledge, and how they could be put to use, settling on nature-based solutions such as forest-carbon storage and biodiversity. She made a shortlist of companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing that kind of work and started contacting them to discuss her options.
In April this year, a month after securing tenure, Gilbert joined Natural Capital Exchange, a start-up firm based in San Francisco, California. The company allows small private landowners to sell carbon credits for preserving forests on their land. Gilbert’s role as senior lead for natural capital involves adding biodiversity credits to the company’s offerings, to provide incentives for conserving functioning, well-managed forests.
Giving up the security and freedom that tenure offers was a big step, but Gilbert says that the hardest part of the decision was actually breaking the news to her graduate students, whose reactions ranged from anger, to understanding, to some combination of the two. “There’s a lot of mentoring and mutual responsibility there, so telling them and helping them through the process of finding a new adviser has been by far the most emotionally gruelling part,” she says.
But she is excited to be taking up the challenge of working in the fast-paced world of a start-up company. “The company is full of rigorous, smart people who want to do good work,” she says. “It’s going to be a wild and exciting ride.”
Spreading the word
It’s a ride that Alice Bell knows well. By 2015, she had spent 11 years working as a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London, and as a research fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK. She decided to leave academia for good and took up a position as head of communications at the climate-change campaign group Possible, based in London.
The move came about partly by necessity — Bell’s contract was due to end, and she felt that UK government cuts were making academia an ever-more precarious occupation — but it stemmed mainly from a desire to be more directly involved in tackling the climate crisis.
While at Imperial, she had built and launched a college-wide interdisciplinary course on climate change that had forced her to look more deeply into the issue. “I felt a greater urgency to put my skills somewhere they would be best utilized,” she says.
Bell says leaving academia was the right choice. She thinks she is having a bigger impact on the climate crisis, and that her work–life balance has improved; she also feels more engaged in her work. “I feel more intellectually stimulated in workshops with NGOs than I did in most academic meetings,” she says, adding that she finds it liberating to be freed from academia’s pressure to publish, and from the weight of that pressure on career progression.
But there are some drawbacks. “When you’re working for a small charity, no one knows who you are,” says Bell. “I was taken more seriously when I could say I was from Imperial.”
Some might fear that leaving academia could arouse suspicions that they weren’t good enough to stay. “Ignore that voice,” she advises. “For many individuals, it could well be the best decision to give up.”
Change from within
Not everyone, however, is ready or willing to give up on an academic career that they have spend years building up. And some find opportunities to get more involved in concrete climate solutions from within academia.
Since 2017, Meade Krosby has combined an academic post as a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group in Seattle, where she works on climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning, with a director’s role at the university’s Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. The centre provides natural-resource managers and policymakers in the region with scientific evidence on climate-change impacts and adaptation actions. Krosby calls it a “boundary organization”, an interface between science and society, “acting as a conduit between the two”.
“We bring applied science to decision-making around climate change, and bring decision-makers’ and communities’ concerns and knowledge back into academia to inform the kind of research that is done,” she says.
Between 2016 and 2018, Krosby collaborated with Indigenous scholars, tribal organizations and other university scientists to develop the Tribal Climate Tool, a free online resource that aims to get the best available climate projections into the hands of Indigenous communities, to inform their planning for climate change. The tool, which launched in 2018, is now being used in many hazard-mitigation plans, such as the Samish Indian Nation’s 2019 climate-change vulnerability assessment. Krosby is also writing a paper on its development and use, producing a more conventional academic output to complement a tool that makes a difference in the real world.
“You can do really useful work that doesn’t look like basic science, but it’s not always a trade-off between doing cool science and useful science,” she says.
Krosby knew early on in her academic career that she wanted to make practical contributions that would help society to prepare for climate change. She started looking for this kind of applied work in 2009, during her postdoctoral research at the University of Washington, but found it hard at first to find funding — either from federal funding agencies or from private foundations. Then, in 2010, she received funding from the US Department of the Interior to look at species mobility and connectivity, and was able to use that to create a position for herself in the Climate Impacts Group.
But she quickly found that her experience in more conventional academic settings had not prepared her for the kinds of project that the group undertook, with the aim of making science useful for policymakers and the public. “It was shocking how ill-prepared I was for transdisciplinary work,” she says. “We’re not trained to do, or to value, those kinds of collaborations.” The centre now supports fellowships and training in societally engaged research, and Krosby teaches a graduate course on how to connect science to society. “It’s an opportunity to train early-career scientists to do the work we never got trained to do,” she says. In 2020, she co-authored a paper1 calling for changes in how scientists are trained, by emphasizing skills such as collaboration and communication1.
Academic career structures are not set up to promote and reward work that requires lots of collaboration with people outside the university, and which doesn’t necessarily result in a typical scientific publication, says Krosby. “The work I want to do wouldn’t be rewarded in a tenure-track position,” she adds. “To do this effectively, universities need to think about their incentive structure. Is a peer-reviewed paper really the most important outcome?”
Julia Baum, a marine ecologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, has found a way to do practical, climate-focused work in a standard academic job. For her, the turning point came in 2015, when a massive marine heatwave nearly wiped out the tropical reef she was studying. “I watched a beautiful pristine reef melt down in 10 months,” she says. “I used to think overfishing was the biggest threat — then climate change came and hit me over the head.”
That experience prompted her to completely overhaul her research programme to focus exclusively on climate impacts and how to mitigate them. “I want to do more than just document a sinking ship — I want to help right it,” she says.
Baum’s tenured position offers her the flexibility of making that change, and she says she felt a moral obligation to apply her knowledge in a way that would help address the biggest threat facing the planet. As well as redirecting her research, Baum is designing a cross-university graduate-training programme focused on coastal climate solutions. This will offer training in professional skills that are crucial for climate work but are rarely taught in universities — such as how to collaborate and negotiate with non-academic partners, and how to deal with the media.
But, like Krosby, Baum says she and many of her colleagues feel frustrated that a lot of universities don’t seem to value or support any kind of work outside conventional academic publications. Those who want to apply their findings to real-world problems often have to do it on their own, with no real benefit to their academic career. “Universities need to rise to the challenge and find innovative ways to support their faculty, by valuing and rewarding solutions work in their hiring and promotion criteria,” she says.
If they don’t, universities risk losing more dedicated researchers such as Gilbert and Bell to the private sector. “If there comes a point when the climate-solutions impact I can have within academia seems too small, then yes, I would make the leap,” says Baum.
For academics looking for a way to take on a bigger role in the fight against climate change, there are a lot of options — from finding or making your own position in a university, to leaving for a company or charity that is doing more immediate, hands-on work. But the first step is working out where you can have the most impact, and what you can bring to the table. “For many people, the biggest impact you can have is through your students,” says Gilbert. “If you can focus on that and feel satisfied, that’s great.”
For those who choose to leave, however, it pays to spend some time doing your research, finding companies and organizations that are doing the kind of work you are interested in, and talking to them about what you could offer. You might be surprised to find just how useful your skills can be outside academia — not just the disciplinary knowledge you have gained, but transferable skills such as technical writing and the ability to review and synthesize complex research. “The list of things we’re good at is pretty awesome,” says Gilbert.