Rethinking the Academic’s "Public"

The local impact matters.

November 12, 2014

In a recent international scientific conference on climate change and resiliency mounted by my University, I was tasked with synthesising the papers presented in the social science panels. The conference was one of the few occasions where the hard sciences folks from fisheries, chemistry and marine biology got to interface with social science researchers like myself. The plenary sessions featured practitioners— the usual government bureaucrats, international NGO funders and local government executives—whose agenda predictably calls for greater collaboration between academics and the public to bring about improved societal outcomes. I am neither naive nor a cynic, but my observations on the conference proceedings confirm what I intuitively know about the academe and how it relates to its public.

  1. Academic expertise does not get translated to practicable, local policy outcomes.

The seeming disconnect between our mangrove tree experts and elected leaders on initiatives surrounding the rehabilitation of our city’s river illustrates shortcomings on both sides. Local leaders complain about how they are unable to tap university experts within their neighbourhood because they are more drawn towards big ticket, rewarding research projects, or sucked into the vortex of well-paid jobs in international organizations. The internationally-recognized expert, meanwhile, bemoans how frustrating it is to engage local government leaders who refuse to listen and insist on their unfounded views of that “development” means more concrete roads rather than greenbelts, or exotic trees for street foliage rather than indigenous species.

As a political scientist, I view this as classic failure to win the agenda. Rather than dismissing decision makers for being “uneducated” on the science behind policy choices or attributing this phenomenon to a “behavioral problem” (i.e. natural tendency of election-sensitive leaders driven mainly by votes), I consider this an overall academe malaise of not fully understanding the socio-cultural contexts in which science rests.

In my opinion, one does not presume that science automatically translates to acceptability. To bridge that requires some serious investment in nurturing your non-peer public— selling your ideas (just like any product-pushing campaign) to those that matter politically. Whether done one-on-one as a consultant to a local chief executive, or by mobilising groups to translate this science-based policy option into an electoral issue, it requires dedication, commitment, and yes, some humble pie. Going by way of local grassroots mobilisation (i.e. with NGOs), I am not too convinced is worthwhile, unless such mobilisation carries into the vote. Thus far, none of our city elected leaders have ever won or lost on the merits of an environmental agenda.

  1. The call for science-based policy is blind to implicit knowledge hierarchies.

Of all the papers in the social science panels which mapped factors that contribute to community resiliency and climate change, one stood out for its audacity in flagging the merits of participation, consultation and networking with professionals that are staple ingredients for external intervention (by government, by NGO) templates. His thesis-based presentation argues that notions about risk and vulnerability are top-down concepts coined by the government and the international donor community which (surprise, surprise) do not match those by locals. This argument resonates with my gut-level distaste over the evacuation edicts of one noted local chief executive whose “zero disaster-related death” metrics recalls a martial-law era. It’s the same apprehension I have of the government’s no-build-zone policy in its rehabilitation of typhoon Haiyan devastated informal coastal communities; it is dismissive of the poor locals’ notion of livelihood imperatives with a built-in calculation of risk.

Much discussion is still needed between social science and hard science researchers about crafting a local public policy agenda that works in a way that politicians will listen to us. It’s a different ballgame, and until and unless our taxpayer-funded University provides the requisite institutional backbone for its most prolific faculty members to choose this path (that is to invest time in public service rather than research and publication, which at this point is better rewarded professionally), we will remain stuck in the never-ending saga of brow beating in every scientific conference.

Iloilo, Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus



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