Research

The importance of using science to solve social problems (essay)

The Future of Science

Science is under attack. We have been hearing this for decades, and it is truer now than ever before. The Trump administration's attempt to obtain names of civil servants who attended climate-related meetings, the proposal to cut the EPA's research office by up to 42 percent (including the entirety of the Global Change Research Program), the overturning of policies that are grounded in scientific consensus and vital to our survival, the disdain with which Trump and his allies dismiss scientific evidence -- these all constitute clear assaults on science. In response, scientists are mobilizing to resist the Trump agenda, including with a proposed March for Science (previously called the Scientists' March on Washington).

If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill -- pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index -- and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.”

That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.

We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.

The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.

More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.

This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.

However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.

The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.

The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.

In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.

Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.

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The new administration must recognize and support the job-creating power of science (essay)

The Future of Science

I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?

How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.

Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.

A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.

It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.

The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.

For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.

House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.

Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.

Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.

The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.

The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.

Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.

So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?

Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.

Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.

Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.

Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.

Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.

David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

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New America releases guidelines on ethical use of data

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New America releases framework to help colleges use predictive analytics to benefit students.

Examining the relationship between good teaching and good scholarship (essay)

Read a college guidebook or go on a college tour, and you constantly see pictures of and hear stories about superstar research faculty teaching freshmen at our most illustrious colleges and universities. Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, National Academy members, all in the undergraduate classroom. Whether that represents reality is one question.  But perhaps more important is whether it should.

Colleges and universities have a variety of output goals. At some institutions, scholarly output is vital, but so is successful teaching at the undergraduate, professional school and graduate levels. So you’d hope that college and university leaders (and ideally state legislators) would know a bit about the production of both top-notch research and top-notch teaching.  In particular, it would be helpful to know whether faculty members who are superstars in the undergraduate classroom pay a price in terms of scholarly achievement.

Unfortunately, the answer to that crucial question has been elusive, mainly due to the difficulty in assembling teaching and research metrics. If we in higher education can’t come up with meaningful measures of each, we have no hope of evaluating the relationship between the two.

In a new study published by the Brookings Institution, the two of us analyze the data of nearly 16,000 Northwestern freshmen and the tenured faculty members who teach them to ask the question: are great teachers poor scholars?  We use two different measures of teaching quality and two different measures of research quality to determine the relationship between teaching and research excellence.

Our biggest challenge on the research side is that scholarly performance is so different across disciplines. How might one recognize stellar scholarship across chemistry and theater, engineering and music, economics and English, mathematics and anthropology? 

We take two approaches. One is holistic: whether a committee of distinguished professors from a wide range of disciplines selects a professor for a university-wide honor. The second is quantitative, reflecting how influential that professor’s work has been relative to others in that person’s field.

It’s harder to measure teaching quality. While teaching evaluations from students are ubiquitous, they often reflect a professor’s grading patterns rather than genuine instructional quality, and they also exhibit gender, racial, and ethnic biases. We therefore instead measure teaching outcomes based on data on future performance and student follow-on course-taking. 

One measure of teaching quality indicates a professor’s contribution to a student’s deep learning, while the other measures the degree to which the professor inspires students. In the first, we examine whether the grade in a second class in the subject is unexpectedly high or low based on what we predict given a student’s standardized test scores, other grades and the like. In the second, we examine the success a faculty member has in inducing students to major in the teacher’s discipline.

One might wonder if those two measures of teaching excellence are correlated. They are not. Faculty members who are most successful in inspiring students to become majors in their subject are not any more distinguished in facilitating “deep learning” than their less charismatic counterparts. And those who are exceptional at conveying course material are no more likely than others at inspiring students to take more courses in the subject area. 

So what did we find about the relationship between research and teaching? Regardless of which measure of teaching and research quality you use, there is no apparent link between the two. In other words, top teachers are no more or less likely to be especially productive scholars than their less-accomplished teaching peers. Our estimates are “precise zeros,” indicating that it is unlikely that mismeasurement for teaching or research quality explains the lack of a relationship. 

That is certainly encouraging for those who fear that great teachers specialize in pedagogy at the expense of research. On the other hand, it is disappointing to observe that weak undergraduate teachers do not make up for their limitations in the classroom with disproportionate research excellence. To phrase it simply, great teachers are not necessarily poor scholars, and great scholars are not necessarily poor teachers.

What does this analysis imply regarding the growing trend of having introductory undergraduate courses taught by non-tenure-line faculty rather than “superstar” researchers? Administrators and policy makers worried about whether research will suffer due to efforts in the classroom, or vice versa, should have their fears at least partially allayed. 

This result seems especially relevant in evaluating the recent move at the University of California to effectively grant tenure to some of their full-time teaching faculty. Our analysis suggests that if one of the motivations for moving undergraduate teaching from faculty members with responsibility for both teaching and research to faculty members whose sole responsibility is teaching is to protect the time of the former group for scholarship, this assumption needs to be questioned. 

Moreover, our previous work shows that the gap in teaching performance between tenure-line and contingent faculty depends entirely on differential teaching at the low end of the value-added distribution. Very few teaching faculty members demonstrate poor teaching as opposed to the tenure-line faculty, where the bottom fifth or so display extremely weak teaching. Presumably, the contracts of contingent faculty are not renewed if they are similarly ineffective in the classroom. While we certainly see the strong benefit of offering greater job security for teaching-track faculty, giving them de facto tenure would eliminate that important lever for department chairs, deans and provosts. 

What if legislators focus on our finding that while top teachers don’t sacrifice research output, it is also true that top researchers don’t teach exceptionally well? Why have those high-priced scholars in the undergraduate classroom in the first place? Surely it would be more cost-efficient to replace them with lower-paid faculty not on the tenure line. That is what has been happening throughout American higher education for the past several decades. 

We would caution, however, that illustrious research faculty members usually provide a draw for students and faculty members alike. Even if their teaching isn’t remarkable, their presence is. When such faculty members teach freshmen, it sends the important signal to the community that the institution takes undergraduate education seriously -- that research and the production of Ph.D. graduates are not all that matter. 

We must not forget that research universities -- and liberal arts colleges with significant research expectations for their faculty -- are only a modest part of American higher education. Most professors teach heavy loads with little or no research expectations. 

But still, research matters at places that take it seriously. The reason why most of the top-rated higher education institutions in the world are located in the United States is not what goes on in their classrooms; it is the research power of their faculties. The challenge for colleges and universities is to find the right balance of both great teachers and great scholars in order to excel in our dual mission of educating students and creating new knowledge.

David N. Figlio is Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics and director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.  Morton Schapiro is a professor of economics and president of Northwestern University.

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Advice to minority scholars for obtaining financial support for research (essay)

The freedom that research support brings is particularly important for radical scholars of color, writes Victor Ray, who gives advice on how to obtain it.

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Friday, February 24, 2017
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Thursday, February 23, 2017

We need systematic research about the humanities not just in them (essay)

Consider two seemingly disparate sets of circumstances. On the one side, society faces an array of grand challenges: climate change and food security, clean and efficient energy, social justice and immigration, and the guarding of democratic norms in a time of social transformation. On the other side, in the most marginal corner of academe, are the disciplines that make up the humanities. They confront their own daunting set of problems: declining prestige and funding, marketization and casualization of the work force, disruptive technological innovations (e.g., MOOCs), and growing political hostility. But what if addressing the first set of issues turns in part on the reformation of the second?

Social problems today are typically defined in technical -- that is, scientific and economic -- terms. But as the recent election has shown, human affairs turn as much (or more!) on humanistic questions of social responsibility and cultural norms. The situation is rich with irony: humanistic issues may be omnipresent, but the academics who have studied these issues are marginal players in the debates. Humanistic disciplines live a cloistered existence, and humanists are ill positioned to participate in societal debates in practical ways. They have spent decades living within the disciplinary warrens of the academy, even while they could have performed a wide range of roles in practical contexts. But this contradiction also represents an opportunity: working out how to better inhabit social roles should constitute a new research program in the humanities.

Granted, criticisms of the humanities have spawned a large collection of books and articles. And we’ve read an equally large set of replies. But what’s remarkable is that while such works have offered pointed critique and spirited rejoinder, they have not spurred the creation of an organized response. One searches in vain -- in America, at least; Europe has made more headway in this regard -- for systematic, institutional efforts on the part of researchers to imagine a viable future for the humanities.

Yes, dozens of centers for humanities research are scattered across the academic landscape. These centers do important work on a wide range of topics -- interdisciplinary research on memory and identity, societal norms and cultural transformation, power structures and postcolonial urbanism. And the insights generated do eventually trickle out into our public life. But programmatically, this work consists of research in the humanities -- or perhaps topical research at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences -- rather than research on or about the humanities. What’s missing is the recursive move, where humanists think about and test an expanded range of responses to the pressures posed by our techno-scientific and neoliberal age.

Now, this could be the job of professional societies. Some of them, like the Modern Language Association, have done a better job than others in addressing issues of job placement and nonacademic employment. But none have committed significant financial or intellectual resources toward the question of whether such troubles call for the examination of a larger set of issues -- in particular, whether we need to develop alternatives to the current disciplinary model of knowledge in the humanities.

Under the disciplinary model, humanists have primarily written for their academic peers: philosophers write for philosophers, and poets for other poets -- and they all write for their graduate students, of course. That is all well and good, but isn’t something more possible? Scientists and engineers work not only in academe but also in the public and private sectors. Why shouldn’t epistemologists, historians and narrativists?

Neither humanities centers nor professional societies have launched a coordinated effort at reimagining the social possibilities of the humanities in the 21st century. Nor, for that matter, is it easy to find any humanities departments that have chosen to structure their programs around training humanists for positions in the public or private sectors. Instead, the 20th-century status quo has continued into the 21st century, whereby academics in the humanities have only two recognized functions: 1) the cultivation of disciplinary expertise through research and 2) the passing down of a cultural legacy through teaching.

We can all point to the exceptions: Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West and Louis Menand are both researchers and public intellectuals. But such scholars form a set of one-offs, rooted in individual effort, rather than being the outcome of an institutional effort to expand the models for humanistic research. We can also point to a wide range of commerce, from Hollywood to advertising to the gaming industry, where humanities graduates make use of their education. But in the main, humanists have relied upon a trickle-down model of humanistic scholarship. We do our work for disciplinary peers, hoping that, in time, it will eventually disseminate throughout culture. How this happens we do not know, for we have not made a study of the question of how broader societal impact occurs.

This status quo approach is sustainable at Harvard University, where a $36 billion endowment shields it from external pressures and hard choices. (The 2013 Harvard report on the humanities "The Heart of the Matter" avoids questions about the viability of the institutional status quo, where humanities research is overwhelmingly directed toward the interests of disciplinary experts.) But outside a small circle of elite institutions, the humanities are threatened by the loss of public support and funding. Humanities programs at nonflagship state institutions are particularly vulnerable, but as we’ve seen recently in Wisconsin, even Big Ten schools are under threat.

And so humanists have a choice. They can accept the institutional status quo, teaching their classes and conducting research in their specialties while hoping that reorganization and consolidation do not overtake their lives. Or they can try to take at least limited control of their future by rethinking the basic societal assumptions underlying the humanities. The latter implies the development of a theoretically robust and rhetorically sensitive philosophy of the humanities, where the nature, roles and institutional homes of the humanities are reconceived -- both within the 21st-century research university and across society. It is this task that should lead to the establishment of institutes on the future of the humanities.

Deeply rooted biases stand in the way of any such effort. In the first instance, any true reformation of the humanities calls for a transdisciplinary approach, where one acknowledges the needs and perspectives of stakeholders and policy makers. Humanists, however, rebel at the implied loss of autonomy where they might be subject to the demands of others. Second, there’s the question of timeline: making nonacademics part of ongoing deliberations will challenge the academic’s schedule of work. Humanists move at their own stately pace, in 7,000-word essays and 200-page books, while the wider world expects products in briefer formats and on spec.

In contrast to both the natural and social sciences, humanists have traditionally had only two roles: teaching and research. Having grown up and been successful within this environment, it’s a lot to expect of humanists to upset their own theoretical and institutional apple cart. And finally, add to these challenges the dreaded specter of “selling out.” Any diminution of disciplinary purity raises concerns that humanists have simply given in to market pressures.

But if we can overcome -- or better yet, theorize -- such hurdles, a number of new social roles are possible for humanists. In fact, in an era when knowledge production has become ubiquitous, the humanities could once again become a core university function, the place of intersection between the academy and society, functioning as translators and integrators within the political economy of knowledge.

To get a sense of the larger possibilities here, consider the current focus on innovation. Innovation is usually defined in terms of economic and technological advance, but surely many of the most important changes in our lives over the last 40 years have occurred in the cultural sphere -- in areas such as women’s and LGBT rights, which have profoundly changed both our political and economic lives. Society has already de facto defined innovation in humanist categories as well as techno-scientific ones; humanists could make the process more self-conscious, helping public agencies identify new types of liberatory practice.

A few of us have come to call such an approach “field philosophy.” Field philosophy departs from applied philosophy through its engaged manner of excavating, articulating, discussing and assessing the philosophical dimensions of real-world policy problems. But the point here, rather than advocating for a particular approach, is to prompt general efforts toward identifying the varied roles that the humanities can play in 21st-century society.

For instance, an institute on the future of the humanities could:

  • Identify instances of success and failure in efforts to bring humanistic insights to non-academic audiences, such as STEM researchers and policy makers in the public realm, and in corporations in the private realm;
  • Develop techniques, approaches and perspectives -- that is, best practices -- for facilitating the transfer of useful insights to outside audiences; and
  • Promote interdisciplinary projects with the STEM disciplines, as well as with schools of business, education and the like across the academy, as well as transdisciplinary projects with policy makers, NGOs, businesses and community groups within wider society.

Yes, some of this work is already being done at humanities centers and institutes, but not in a sufficiently focused and explicit way. A dedicated institute would function as a think tank for conducting research on the humanities themselves, their present condition and future possibilities. This also implies the development of a team approach to humanities research, something similar to the increasingly prevalent process of team science across the STEM disciplines.

As a representative sample, humanist research teams could:

  • explore the historical development of the humanities;
  • question whether the humanities should be viewed as “disciplines” at all;
  • re-evaluate the role of rhetoric in humanistic education;
  • theorize the problem of “dirty hands,” so that we can distinguish between judicious compromise and “selling out”;
  • pursue challenges and opportunities tied to the continuing development of digital culture;
  • rethink criteria for -- and alternatives to -- tenure and promotion;
  • develop new indicators of success and impact for humanities scholarship;
  • explore the seconding of humanities professors to other departments;
  • create lab courses and internships for humanities students (undergraduate and graduate); and
  • identify new institutional locations for the humanities -- e.g., storefronts at local shopping malls.

To say it once again: such work is being done already in a variety of venues -- but not in a self-conscious and organized fashion.

Creating the kind of institute described here would require a risk-taking university provost or president -- or, as is increasingly the case in poorly funded times, an outside angel who believes in the relevance of the humanities. But the times call for nothing less. The future of the humanities is too crucial to our common future not to be given the same type of scholarly care that we now devote to our disciplinary specialties.

Robert Frodeman teaches in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas. He is an editor of The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity (Oxford University Press, 2017) and co-author with Adam Briggle of Socrates Tenured: The Institutions of 21st-Century Philosophy (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016).

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University of Southern California creates new Center on Race and Equity

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The University of Southern California will bring the University of Pennsylvania's Shaun Harper to campus, as well as several of Penn's initiatives, with big plans for a nationwide campus climate survey.

Presidents Sign Climate Change Letter to Trump

The leaders of nearly 200 colleges and universities have signed an open letter calling on U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and members of Congress to support climate research, investment in a low-carbon economy and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The letter was developed by colleges, universities and the Boston-based nonprofit Second Nature. It currently lists the names of more than 170 colleges and universities from more than 30 states as signees. It will be open for additional signees until Jan. 13, at which point organizers plan to send it to politicians.

“The upcoming transition of federal leadership presents a unique opportunity to address head-on the challenges of climate change by accelerating the new energy economy and creating strong, resilient communities,” it reads in part. “This is particularly important for those in our communities most vulnerable to climate change. Your support for these three areas is a critical investment in the future of the millions of students we serve. We will continue to prepare graduates for the work force as well as lead in world-class research and innovation in order to secure a healthier and more prosperous future for all.”

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Universities must confront a fossil fuels apparatus that seeks to rival legitimate science (essay)

America’s universities are home, more than any place else in our country, to the enterprise of science. That has been an important and proud role for our great universities, and it has produced wonderful discoveries. Besides providing technical progress, science gives our society its headlights, warning us of oncoming hazards. As the pace of change accelerates, we need those headlights brighter than ever. So when a threat looms over the enterprise of science, the universities that are its home need to help address the threat.

The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary.

Researchers who study that adversary report that it consists of dozens of front organizations. Those organizations hire stables of paid-for scientists who recite messages that have been honed by public relations experts. The organizations often have common funding, staffing and messaging: the beast is a Hydra. One of the reasons we know about this science-denial machinery is from research conducted at universities by professors like Aaron McCright at Michigan State, Riley Dunlap at Oklahoma State, Michael Mann at Penn State, Robert Brulle at Drexel, Justin Farrell at Yale and Naomi Oreskes at Harvard. We owe them and their colleagues all a debt of gratitude.

The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation -- “Doubt is our product.”

Second, the science-denial operatives don’t waste much time in peer-reviewed forums. They head straight to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience -- and the more uninformed the audience, the better.

Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund -- made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest -- has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” -- costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited.

And it’s your adversary. Those of you who either are scientists, or value and want to defend scientists, should beware. You have a powerful, invasive new alien in your ecosystem: it is a rival assuredly, a mimic at best, and an outright predator at worst. Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.

Given the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the new administration, we can’t count on government any longer to resist this predator. Regrettably, that science denial machinery is now probably hardwired into the incoming administration, as shown by the appointment of the fossil-fuel-funded climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. This considerably increases the denial machinery’s threat to the enterprise of legitimate science. The hand of industry now works not just behind the science-denial front groups but in the halls of political power.

That makes it all the more important for entities outside government -- notably universities as well as other scientific organizations -- to join together and step up a common defense. It is neither fair nor strategically sensible for universities and scientific associations to expect individual scientists to defend our nation against the science-denial apparatus. Individual scientists are ordinarily not trained in the dark arts of calculated misinformation. Individual scientists are ordinarily not equipped to deal with attacks and harassment on multiple fronts. Individual scientists don’t often have squadrons of spin doctors and public relations experts at their disposal. And they have no institutions devoted to ferreting out the falsehoods or conflicts of interest behind their antagonists.

Individual scientists are trained in the pursuit of truth through the tested methods of science. The science-denial machinery has truth as its enemy, and propaganda and obfuscation -- even outright falsity -- as its method. So the enterprise of science generally, and universities specifically, will need a common strategy to resist this potent and encroaching adversary.

In the Senate, I see the work of this apparatus, and its associated political operation, every day. Do not underestimate its power and ambition. Again, make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail.

Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States senator, a Democrat, representing Rhode Island.

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