Science diplomacy lessons from the movie Don’t Look Up
Updated on 07 September 2022
The star-studded Netflix movie Don’t Look Up provoked a lot of debate. As the first cohort of Diplo’s Science Diplomacy online course, we got together to explore the movie from the perspective of science diplomacy and science policy. The movie touched upon a lot of topics that were discussed during this course, specifically the science–policy interface, and science communication. Our discussion started with an overview of the movie’s plot, followed by reflections from the movie that resonated with the content of the eight–module course, and ended with sharing different perspectives from our international group of participants.
What are our main takeaways?
- Although many considered the movie’s plot to be a metaphor for climate change, it could refer to any global challenge, like the COVID-19 pandemic through which we are currently living.
- Putting science in a position to influence decision-making is the responsibility of both the scientific community and political leadership. This highlights the importance of building science–communication skills as part of a career in science.
- The movie demonstrated several factors that impact science communication during a global crisis: the media, the public, other scientists, relevant agencies and organisations, and non-state actors such as big tech companies.
- Some critics argued that the film is too far-fetched in its depiction of the scientists’ struggle to be Yet, from the perspective of actual scientists facing these communications challenges, it felt realistic. It is challenging for scientists to communicate intangible facts, but they must do this to inform others about events yet to happen so as to provide time to counteract them. When research results become tangible, most of the time it is too late to react. Take climate change, for example. It was predicted scientifically decades ago, and yet only recently was added to the agendas of leading countries.
- The movie also portrayed the role of non-state actors (in this case, tech companies) in influencing leadership decisions. In Don’t Look Up, a big tech company brings a proposal to the table that has huge return-on-investment potential, and that is backed up by elites but not by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. We agreed that decision makers find it increasingly hard to look past the allure of such propositions.
- Social media also played an important role. Instead of getting people to pay attention to the upcoming catastrophe, social media chatter took over. Memes dominated, and shifted focus from the scientific message and the urgency to act, to the mental health and personal lives of the scientists.
- Another clear message the movie put out was that even when solutions are identified, they will be accessible only to the elite, which may exclude even those who discovered the issue. The movie also highlights inequality between countries, which is further exacerbated and instrumentalised by the more powerful nations.
- Science diplomats were missing in the movie, as it focused on the science–policy dialogue happening in the United States, which makes sense for a Hollywood production. However, in such a global crisis, science diplomats should be employed at an early stage, which is often missing in reality.
In conclusion, the general consensus of our group was that the movie should be perceived as a wake-up call, since global challenges like climate change cannot be as tangible and obvious as a comet destroying the planet, yet have no less impact on our life on Earth. The challenges for science diplomats are all too real.
Muna Zaqsaw is the manager of the Newton-Khalidi Fund, a science and innovation fund of the British Embassy in Jordan. She has also completed Diplo’s Science Diplomacy online course.
This blog post is a summary of a discussion among participants from Diplo’s Science Diplomacy online course. The discussion took place after the end of the course, and was self-organised by a selected group of participants.
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