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Public Intellectuals and “Significant” Research

02 Mar Posted by in Academics, Research | 3 comments
Public Intellectuals and “Significant” Research

A recent (Feb. 15) New York Times op-ed on the increasing public irrelevance of much social science research, by Nicholas Kristof, has legitimately won wide attention. Kristof argues that academics themselves must bear much of the blame for the fact that so many really intelligent academic thinkers have little or no role in the crucial issue debates of our time. He notes some exceptions, to be sure, particularly among economists, but overall he bemoans the substantial gulf between what academics do and what the public, or even the policy world, cares about.

Obviously, there’s much truth in what he says. While his comments focus particularly on the social sciences, and political science in particular, they could certainly apply to a great deal of humanistic research, which has so often become increasingly recondite, jargon-filled, and self-absorbed.

I would modify the Kristof approach just a bit, nevertheless. He bemoans the decline of area studies work in favor of more abstract, quantitative modeling in international theory. I’m not sure that’s factually correct. At Mason, for example, we have a flourishing Middle-Eastern program that is deeply engaged in timely, empirical analysis and eager to contribute to policy discussion, and I don’t think we’re unique. To be sure, we did not predict the Arab Spring (one of the Kristof criteria for relevance in this area), but nobody else did either, in or out of academe, so it’s important not to erect unrealistic expectations. More widely, Mason unquestionably houses (in part because of our regional location) a wide array of people who delight in reaching a wider public, whether in NPR book reviews, testimony before Congress on health policy, real estate, or entrepreneurship – the list of public engagements is long.

All this noted, there is no contesting the validity of much of the critique: Mason, like most American universities, does embrace too much research that is narrow; obscurely written; destined for an increasingly narrow audience of other academics in small subdisciplinary specialties. And while I don’t think we look down on public engagement as fully as Kristof implies – we’re quite proud of our most visible colleagues – we certainly suffer from some of the general uncertainty about how to reward this kind of activity, particularly at the more junior ranks.

There are, after all, two primary pressure points, beyond the more general academic culture (and again, Kristof briefly touches on both). The one that most concerns me is the tenure system. We, like most universities, do rely heavily on peer evaluations of research, and there is no doubt that this reliance can encourage narrow work that pleases an entirely academic subspecialty but no one else. It can promote the safety of disciplinary obscurantism rather than the risk taking of wider public engagement. I don’t think we actually punish those who gain some wider audience, but we probably do not adequately encourage. I don’t think we should veer to the other extreme, of simply rewarding successful editorializing without the control of more careful evaluation for empirical and theoretical originality.

But the system can and should at least be modified, so that faculty themselves are expected to be able to defend the public significance of their work along with meeting reasonable peer expectations, with rewards for those who combine new discovery with contributions to wider discourse and problem-solving (or problem-addressing).

Whether this also calls for recasting the other, earlier pressure point in the academic career – PhD training – may be somewhat more complex. I do think we should be encouraging doctoral students in the humanities and social sciences to tackle topics of genuine importance, and not simply narrow feasibility. We should include discussion of public involvement as part of the training process.  It would be great to promote discussion groups of doctoral candidates who challenge each other to defend the wider implications of their work, and not simply its conformity to the latest sub-disciplinary mantra; and great to reward intelligibility over obscurantism in presentation. But here I would worry about premature pressure to reach out widely, to venture claims not adequately supported by assessed research. We may want to produce academics who are comfortable with blogging and other public apparatus; but we have a stake as well in making sure they can do more than this.

In an earlier essay I talked about the challenge of justifying the tag of “research of consequence”; I view this additional, wider discussion of public impact as a useful extension of the challenge. I don’t think we need to throw baby out with bath, particularly in the training process, but we do need to acknowledge, and address, some real problems in the current system – and some real opportunities for greater impact.