Handling the Hot Water

What should you do if your research lands you in controversy? M. V. Lee Badgett offers advice.

January 27, 2016

If you are a scholar engaged in research, that research may sometimes lead you into controversy. While simply doing good research with professional integrity is usually the best strategy for avoiding those situations, it may not be sufficient in some cases. The key is to do a bit of planning if you think your work might put you in an uncomfortable spotlight.

Some situations are more likely to get you and your research into conflicts than others. For instance, if your research hits a cultural or political hot button, like today’s heated debates over climate change, gun control, the minimum wage, charter schools, gay marriage or evolution, you might attract attention from many people outside of academe who think they have some stake in your research findings or ideas. Or if you become an expert witness in litigation, you could get a subpoena to produce drafts and other materials that you used to formulate your professional opinion on a topic.

Likewise, if you are a professor (especially at a public university) and become visible in a heated political debate, whether it’s related to your research or not, you might find yourself the target of an advocacy group’s unwanted attention. Even working with smaller local organizations or issues can generate conflict with powerful opponents, although usually not of the headline-grabbing sort.

If you suspect that you may someday end up in such a situation, prepare now for the possibility so that you’re ready later. You must learn to manage the conflict.

Your instinctive response might be to just avoid controversy by staying out of the debate. An example of that approach involves economist David Card, whose research has been influential in changing views on a longstanding debate about the minimum wage. He and his co-author, Alan B. Krueger, showed that increasing the minimum wage does not necessarily reduce employment, and they argued that there are good theoretical reasons for that finding. Their work upset not only some powerful people in his discipline, but also business interests -- generating numerous attacks on the research.

In a media interview, Card reported he has not done much further research on the minimum wage, at least in part because of the controversy that greeted his original work: “First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.”

But an avoidance strategy for dealing with controversy over your research is not foolproof. Your research could still attract controversy, perhaps as a result of attention from other academics or from advocacy efforts. If that happens, being cloistered in your college or university office will deprive you of some important resources that you otherwise might have drawn on. In fact, it’s particularly important to develop throughout your career a strong professional network that includes not only researchers in your field but also people in the political world, in communications, and the like. If you cultivate those individuals in advance, when your research comes under fire, they can come to your defense or help you sidestep or mitigate the conflict in the first place.

More important, providing good research is crucial for educating the public about key national and international issues. The fact is that some other participants in a given debate might be acting more out of a personal, political or financial interest in the particular findings of research than in the process of uncovering knowledge that might rationally inform public decisions. While those participants might speak the language of science (and might even be scientists), their criticisms of research are likely to be targeted at findings that pose challenges to the pursuit of their own self-interests or the interests of particular groups.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway are historians of science who have studied controversies about scientific research that inform public policy. When they analyzed the debates over global warming, acid rain, nuclear arms policy and the dangers of smoking and secondhand tobacco smoke, Oreskes and Conway found the same scientific messengers and scientific-sounding messages popping up over and over again. Those messengers push back hard against an emerging consensus among scientists in the field -- that the earth is warming, cigarettes are bad for your health, we can’t “win” a nuclear war and so on.

While those science critics aren’t scholars in the fields of research that they are critiquing, they are very influential. They deploy their scientific credentials and cultivate political networks to cast doubt on the findings in question.

This kind of situation is exactly why good scientists and scholars need to be better trained to engage with the public. Oreskes and Conway found that many scientists didn’t want to get too involved in the public debates that are related to their work. The values of teamwork and consensus, along with the belief that truth will win out, contribute to individual scientists’ preference to stay out of the limelight. But the cost of obscurity and avoidance is allowing others to dictate the debate and public outcomes, as Oreskes and Conway’s work demonstrates. One or two well-known scholars who have had public followings, like Carl Sagan or Paul Krugman, aren’t enough to meet the need for knowledge in the public arena.

Tools to Consider

The tools of engagement are easy enough to learn and lead to greater effectiveness. The big picture includes not just the scientific questions but also the political context they fit within. Having a broad professional network puts you in touch with people who might be even better suited than you to deliver your ideas to particular subgroups, such as different faith communities or the communities most adversely affected by a problem you study. Meanwhile, good communications skills allow you to be clear and effective in getting your message heard.

But what if you end up taking some unpleasant heat in the public spotlight? Then don’t be afraid to ask for help from your network. The people you know in the political world will be both an early warning system and a source of support should you become somebody’s target. The people you know who do public relations for a living can give you advice on how to respond if that becomes necessary. Don’t be afraid to call on them or even proactively seek advice if you think you’re headed into rough waters.

Reworking your communications strategy can also be helpful. You’ll still want to think about the message you’re conveying, but you might need to revise it. Colleagues with decades of communication experience have made several useful suggestions about messaging:

  • Be proactive in getting your message out.
  • Develop your messages carefully. Think about which ones might lead to tangents that take you in a potentially damaging direction and avoid those messages.
  • Don’t let the critics of your work or ideas define your message or issue. Reframe the debate if necessary.
  • Stay on message. Remember that when someone asks you a question, you need to respond but not necessarily answer the exact question.
  • Don’t engage in hypotheticals if they are posed to you. People in controversies might have healthy imaginations and are likely to twist your intentions and meanings in ways that will not do justice to your argument.

One of the hardest pieces of advice for some scholars to follow through on is figuring out how to stay on message, especially on controversial topics. There are lots of ways to pivot back to your message if someone pulls you in a direction you don’t want to go.

For example, psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies how unconscious racial biases affect judgments about African-Americans by police officers and others. After the 2014 killings of unarmed black men by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., a journalist asked her about her research: “In Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony before the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury, he described Michael Brown as looking ‘like a demon.’ Is this an example of what you mean?”

Eberhardt declined the bait head-on: “I don’t want to speak directly on that particular case. I don’t know all the details, and maybe we’ll never know. However, we have done work in my lab on how African-Americans can be dehumanized in these types of encounters.”

You can pivot more subtly, too. Sociologist Amy Schalet’s work on teen sexuality generates media questions about controversial issues, such as vaccinating teenagers against human papillomavirus. In a television appearance, an interviewer asked her how she would address the concerns of parents who oppose vaccination because it implies permission to have sex. Schalet’s answer turned the conversation back to her message about the importance of healthy relationships and communication between parents and teens: “I think what you emphasize is that, above all, the conversation is important. … And that even a conversation about Gardasil can be about, ‘This is promoting health. You know, this is something that may eventually become part of your life, sexuality, at a point that you think is healthy, at a point that we hope for you. But we want you to be protected.’”

Finally, think hard before participating in formal public debates. Debates implicitly grant equal weight to both sides. If you’re asked to debate a topic on which there is little or no legitimate scientific disagreement, such as evolution or global warming, you might be putting yourself in a no-win situation. At the very least, you’re likely to run into arguments that you might not be prepared to address, either substantively or rhetorically. I know some scientists who decline to participate in debates about climate change or evolution because they don’t want to grant legitimacy to the opposing view. Other public debates are less about science, though. The debate about allowing gay couples to marry has scientific elements but also enough other arguments about norms tied to civic tradition, morality and religion that a healthy debate can be enlightening.

The Best Defense: A Strong Ethical Foundation

On a less instrumental level, living by some basic ethical principles can also help you avoid and manage certain kinds of public conflict. Our professions have ethical rules that we all must live by as scholars -- for example, don’t make up data and don’t plagiarize -- and public engagement implies another set of useful ethical norms. If you have a public-spirited reason for being publicly engaged, good ethics help you avoid suspicion about your motives and will make you a better researcher citizen or researcher activist in the world.

Recognize your privileged position. Although many of us researchers like to complain about our salaries and workload, it’s important to recognize that most established scholars live lives of relative privilege, with an above-average standard of living, a relatively high degree of economic security (at least for those of us with tenure) and some control over our daily schedules. The contrast can be especially stark when we look at the harried, often low-paid activists, organization staff and public servants we might work with. We can become easy targets of people who want to stir up conflict in a cauldron of resentment.

Be honest about what you get out of engagement. That unequal positioning of ourselves and those we work with and for can also make us targets for opponents (or even our friends) who might claim that our work and findings serve our self-interest. And I would agree to an extent that the value of the public-oriented research we do accrues most personally and directly to us. We get data, publications, status, professional experience, paid speaking gigs, teaching material and grants on top of the financial rewards from our jobs. Sometimes we have the opportunity to get additional pay as a consultant, and we should assume that someone will want to know that at some point. Yes, we often work long, hard hours for those benefits, but so do the people we work with on our public projects, even when they get nothing extra out of working with us. We should be ready to explain how the value of research for the people we’re working with compares with the gains we get.

Be the change. In particular, I would argue that those of us whose work addresses social and economic inequalities have an ethical responsibility to “be the change we seek.” Our relationships with the people we work with -- and for -- can be deepened by working thoughtfully and with an eye to our work as a means to reducing inequality, not just an end.

Learning to engage on public issues is not rocket science, thank goodness, although engagement is about doing good science for the public good. Let’s take the same high standards that we have for ourselves in the lab, office, library or field, and learn to use our knowledge and ideas well.


M. V. Lee Badgett is professor of economics and director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This essay is adapted from The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, being published this month by New York University Press.


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