Making Research Matter: A Public Challenge to Scholars

Academics need to reach across political and ideological divides to bring their research expertise to bear on the policy issues of the day, writes Linda Stamato.

October 12, 2017
 
 
iStock/Educester

That academic policy analysis is not very likely to influence public opinion let alone be given weight in legislative or political domains should hardly come as a shock. People often disdain university research professors as intellectuals who inhabit spaces far removed from where the common man abides. Our perceived insularity and elitism hardly help, but neither does the undercurrent of anti-intellectualism in America that has received a boost in recent months.

The effect is to divide the “educated them” from the “uneducated us” and to alienate those needing information from those in good positions to provide it.

Citizens are bombarded with so much information, moreover, that responsible vetting of it has become increasingly difficult. They may absorb information about climate change, health care, school choice, foreign trade and diplomacy, and immigration without critically questioning the sources, or the intentions, of those creating the message.

So it behooves academics to reach across political and ideological divides to bring their expertise to bear on the issues of the day and to put policy arguments forward effectively.

Our work is cut out for us: not only have legislators in various states since 2014 filed close to 70 “academic freedom” bills permitting teachers to present established science as controversial, but science is now also under siege by an administration that questions empirical reality and disregards objective information to make policy. Scientists are fighting back, but they and academics more broadly need to do more than protest. We must figure out how to translate what we know and what we discover into understandable, meaningful language that is clear and credible, so that it, in a word, matters.

That we do not do this in a substantial way is, at least in part, our own shortcoming.

We develop expertise in our disciplines, often with a narrow, even detached, focus that can dissuade us from speaking publicly, let alone advocating actively. What’s more, academics who do speak in public often meet disapproval from their colleagues who perceive public communication as unprofessional, or worse, attention grabbing. Consequently, a public scholar is taking a risk.

Yet democracy depends on taking that risk. Otherwise, the public arena can devolve to the loudest or most politically pointed voices, not to the best informed.

Informing Public Discourse and Policy Making

With respect to climate change and public health, to take but two vital areas, academic research should figure prominently in public discourse and decision making. Providing it is a seminal role for a university, especially one with a land-grant tradition. At my institution, Rutgers University, such work has begun in earnest. For example, several scientists at our Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Rutgers President Robert Barchi have presented groundbreaking research in New York, Philadelphia and Washington that highlights how climate change is affecting life on our planet.

Disseminating Rutgers research on human health -- on the impacts of environmental hazards of toxic spills, on climate change and vector-borne diseases -- is another example and provides a model for other research areas. A series of programs that included faculty members and communications professionals focused on: 1) attracting media coverage to research, 2) communicating with the mass media on air and in print, 3) writing books for general audiences, 4) developing an online presence through the websites, social media and blogs of academics, and 5) forging social change by communicating the research to policy makers by, among other initiatives, giving effective expert testimony to legislators and building productive collaborative relationships with state and federal policy makers.

Rutgers is hardly alone in this. Stony Brook University has pioneered a program to train faculty members and graduate students so that their research can inform and engage a broad audience. Public writing and presentations are an important part of an academic’s overall mission there. It’s a promising initiative.

Professional associations are lending a hand, too. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, is encouraging their scientists to speak publicly about their expertise more often and teaching them how to reach policy makers. That was prompted by the paucity of university researchers -- as opposed to lobbyists -- among those invited to address lawmakers during a period surveyed by the association.

According to Todd Gittlin in “Promoting Knowledge in the Age of Unreason,” we need to move beyond Earth Day demonstrations -- although those matter -- to new strategies, such as deploying billboards to present short messages from science that attest to, say, the importance of vaccines. It means institutions should sponsor more nonprofit, nonpartisan journalistic endeavors, such as the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Iowa.

Demonstrating just how effective researchers can be when deploying their knowledge to public purpose, geometry professor Moon Duchin of Tufts University has shown how to use mathematics to confront gerrymandering. Duchin also created a program to train mathematicians to serve as expert witnesses in court cases over redrawn electoral districts.

At Carnegie Mellon University, graduate students started a group called Public Communication for Researchers, an undertaking to learn to explain their work to the public in ways that can be understood and valued.

Taking Public Engagement Seriously

If academe is to embrace a more expansive view of scholarship, to connect our disciplines to the complexities of life and bring scholarly research and thinking to pressing issues, then institutions should give such public engagement weight in the promotion and tenure process. They should encourage faculty members to engage in such public service and reward them for it. If professors appear before congressional committees and staff, for example, as well as state legislatures, they should be supported with university funds.

Universities might give some thought to hiring a dedicated communications liaison in their public relations offices to aid this important mission of translating significant research into forms and formats that can inform policy and educate the nation’s citizens. This person could play a key role in both shaping faculty members’ writings for mass-market outlets -- Politico, The Huffington Post, Red State, RealClearPolitics, Drudge Report, Vox and more -- and in facilitating the access the media have to faculty members and their writings. Entering the viral internet to create well-crafted messages for Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms can be an opportunity as well. Liaisons can also create contacts and build relationships with think tanks, libraries and community centers -- places where public programs take place -- not to mention keep doors open to legislative chambers for hearings and staff briefings.

And, as philanthropies become more engaged with public policy matters -- as they try to shape political discourse, education policy, health-care research and more -- academics ought not to overlook the need to deploy their research to help determine what ideas have legitimacy and deserve support, and thus seek to influence where donors choose to make their grants and investments.

Getting Results

The kind of concerted effort in which academe joined with media to help reduce cigarette smoking, raise awareness of threats to our seas and mobilize behind Earth Day is what we need to keep climate change, public health concerns and other pressing issues front and center on the nation’s and the world’s agenda. For advancing understanding -- and undertaking the policy challenges that face the nation -- we need to have an honest and thorough conversation with academics who are willing, prepared and encouraged to embrace an active public role.

Bio

Linda Stamato is a faculty fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and co-director of its Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She has also served as chair of the Board of Governors at Rutgers.

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