Skip to main content

About this Research Topic

Manuscript Submission Deadline 01 December 2022
Manuscript Extension Submission Deadline 31 January 2023

While there has been discussion for decades about the need to rethink the core purpose of academia to enable all to live well on a planet of finite resources, humanity’s present predicaments point to a paradox at the heart of the academic enterprise. Although academic institutions have originated research and ...

While there has been discussion for decades about the need to rethink the core purpose of academia to enable all to live well on a planet of finite resources, humanity’s present predicaments point to a paradox at the heart of the academic enterprise. Although academic institutions have originated research and innovations that underpin much of what we view as ‘development and progress’, these same advances are also responsible for the global crises we now face. Indeed, many voices are now arguing that academia can and must do more to drive the transformative change that is needed if we are to avert the imminent catastrophe that is almost upon us.

The Alliance for Sustainability leadership in Education (EAUC) in conjunction with Second Nature and the United Nations Environment’s Youth and Education Alliance, announced in 2019 that over 7,000 higher and further education institutions across six continents were declaring a climate emergency, with a three-point plan for action as part of the ‘Race to Zero’. This enshrined a bolder commitment from academia to play its part in achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions. While there has been success over several decades in fostering Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and in embedding sustainability in curricula, the efficacy of this has arguably been limited by the disciplinary silos in which academics find themselves. Similarly, the research and scholarly work that is needed to fully understand planetary limits transcends the traditional silos of academic disciplines. This Research Topic then will examine what needs to change to optimise ESD and transdisciplinary approaches to research and teaching. It will explore ways in which theories of change can be brought to bear on these issues.

Our Research Topic also centres on the responsibility (acknowledged increasingly by academics) for academic institutions and sectors, and for academics themselves, to do more. As trusted educators, communicators, and policy-influencers, academia has unique potential – and responsibility – to guide students and society through this transition to a better future. In the case of many academics, this means embracing advocacy and activism as their moral responsibility at this point in humanity’s history. To this end, the Research Topic will consider ways in which climate justice principles may be used to explore the responsibilities of academic institutions, as one example of an actor with the capacity to influence the drivers of climate breakdown, to act.

In some nations, academic institutions have fallen prey to a set of neoliberal assumptions that have arguably diminished the agency of individual academics. The marketisation of higher education is rife in some nations (e.g. UK and US) and while some academics have documented rising inequality, a deepening climate and ecological crisis, socio-economic breakdown, and the deteriorating psychological and physical well-being these engender, they have so far proven mostly powerless to reorient their fields to confront these challenges at the institutional level. Consequently, they remain unable to pursue an agenda for change that benefits their students and wider society. This Research Topic welcomes research that explores actions available to academics from diverse perspectives, including models of behavioural change.

Decades of research have shown that warnings do not work, and that evidence-based recommendations do not necessarily translate into policy or institutional change. Academics increasingly refer to a broken ‘science-society’ contract, suggesting that calls to ‘listen to the science’ and expectations that warnings issued by scientists will be heeded reflect a depoliticized view of the relationships between science and society. This failure to recognise the intricate ways in which science and policy are connected raises questions about the neutrality of research and the academic enterprise. Our Research Topic invites articles that explore how we might re-make the science-society contract.

Questions about the independence and interdependence of research and teaching inevitably arise when academic institutions are in receipt of funds from corporations, charities, foundations and individuals. Institutions can be compromised by vested interests, often in the form of corporate interests that can influence research, curriculum, and staff appointments, and the will of senior management to address this problem is poor.

While there are laudable initiatives aimed at resolving intersecting challenges and promoting transdisciplinary approaches in higher education, it is fair to say that increasing numbers of academics globally realise that we are not set up to ready society for an era of colliding environmental and social crises. Many fear that academia is guilty of perpetuating the problems that have created this crisis. And while growing numbers hold this view, few have ready answers as to what more academics and academic institutions can do. In spite of this, some academics have chosen to step outside of their conventional roles, embracing advocacy and activism, either taking individual action outside of their role or seeking to drive change within their institutions.

One problem is that action is fragmented, often reliant upon the energies and tenacity of one or more individuals who have sought to re-define their roles to embrace the responsibility they feel to act. The Research Topic will serve to aggregate work on academic activism and to raise awareness of ways in which academics can act. It will also examine the notion that we need to remake the science-society contract, and will explore what that entails. The Research Topic will explore the interrelations between science and society and highlight the need to examine political dimensions of decision making and knowledge production.

To begin to provide answers to the questions of what it is that academics can do to drive transformational change, this Research Topic brings together voices from diverse disciplines and nations. Their voices have in common one thing - each has reflected on or re-imagined their role and purpose as an academic and each has embraced advocacy or activism.

The articles will be organised around three broad themes:

(i) In what ways are our academic institutions either failing or succeeding? We invite articles that expose the overt and covert influences on academia, such as neoliberal structures and fossil fueled research agendas. We also invite articles centred on examples of good practice, such as initiatives to foster transdisciplinary approaches to research and education.

(ii) Trailblazers for transformative change. We invite case studies and critiques from the front lines, from academics exploring and putting into practice their own take on ‘What can I do?' Evaluations of what has and has not worked to drive change at the institutional and individual levels are welcomed..

(iii) The disruptors that are already initiating transformations in HE. The growth of for-profit private providers, open access teaching resources and other online approaches that threaten the business models of existing public and nonprofit institutions, who struggle to compete with the relevance and ‘just in time’ education that is becoming available via novel actors. We welcome articles exploring the potential for disruption.

Keywords: Academia Activism, Transdisciplinarity, Neoliberalism, Marketisation, Climate Justice, Decolonialism

Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

Topic Editors


Topic Coordinators


Recent Articles



Sort by:





total views views downloads topic views

Top countries
Top referring sites

About Frontiers Research Topics

With their unique mixes of varied contributions from Original Research to Review Articles, Research Topics unify the most influential researchers, the latest key findings and historical advances in a hot research area! Find out more on how to host your own Frontiers Research Topic or contribute to one as an author.