Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game

Hello everyone,

On Sept. 27th Andy Hoffman shared on the Leopold listserv an article that he wrote stemming from ideas generated at the Leopold Fellows workshop in Palo Alto several years ago.
Michigan Journal of Sustainability: Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game
I think this article strikes at the very core of what we are hopefully “about” as science communicators, having gone through the Leopold training. As such, I hope this article sparks some discussion among us, and I thought I would try to get the balling roll with one observation.

I very much appreciate the 12 Rules of Engagement cited in the article, and Rule #2 caught my eye in particular: “Recognize the rules of academia. An academic scientist can best enter the public debate from the security of tenure. Junior faculty members must remain aware that the academic model is an apprenticeship model, and young scientists must earn their place within the academic community through tenure before engaging in public discourse. The route to tenure is still based on academic scholarship, not public engagement. While one may choose to make brief forays into the public debate before tenure, public engagement should increase as one’s career advances.”

I think this is closely related to a special session that Leopold fellows put together for the 2012 AAAS on The Beauty of Benefits of Escaping the Ivory Tower (see this Leopold 3.0 post). In that session we talked about confronting and removing institutional barriers to public engagement within academe…..

Can we in fact engender change within our universities? Can we in fact reinvent how beans are counted? Is it possible for institutions to recognize outreach (including public and political discourse) as a form of scholarship, scholarship which for junior faculty can use in a small way toward tenure? What are appropriate levels of engagement activity for junior faculty (recognizing of course that not one size fits all and that institutional cultures are different)?

Scholarly organizations are at least beginning to recognize such discourse (e.g., the American Geophysical Union, the Association of American Geographers, etc.).

8 thoughts on “Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse: Establishing the Rules of the Game

  1. Perhaps this has already been said, or is so obvious that it doesn’t need saying, but I’m good at obvious:

    “Recognize the rules of academia” begs the question: Who makes the rules? As mid-career or beyond, We Do. It’s a lot less fun than some things we might spend our time on, but I think it’s on us to make a point of getting on tenure review committees, at department levels and above, and making our values stick. Protect and champion junior colleagues who engage in outreach. And yes, argue with colleagues who think a machine who just pumps out technical papers is more a scholar worthy of tenure than one who does excellent, rigorous science, and produces fewer technical papers but invests the time to make that work relevant and accessible to those outside the academy.

  2. Hello –
    I am in an applied science department (Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences) where engagement outside of the academy is not only accepted, it’s encouraged. Our annual evaluations include a list of media outreach and public presentations, and these lists are starting to show up on P&T dossiers. Service on agency review boards and panels is expected for promotion to full professor.
    Yes, it is difficult to quantify the benefits of engagement, but as Karen H. said, our metrics for scholarship are often flawed. At this point, we have successfully integrated outreach and engagement and public service into our department’s reward system, and I would say we are making good progress on this at the College level (College of Agricultural Sciences). I know that my publicly active colleagues in other departments on campus have not fared so well. Given that university budget cuts and regulations are forcing us to spend more and more time doing paperwork instead of our jobs, getting public service and outreach into the mainstream of scholarly evaluation is desperately needed.
    Cheers –

  3. I wrote this piece as a way to stimulate conversation and wanted to focus specifically on the ways that tenure track professors can engage in public and political discourse. I recognize that many scholars choose to go into government, think tanks and NGOs with more of an engagement focus.

    In the tenure track, I also recognize that there are different rules in different disciplines. In my own discipline of business, the rules of the tenure game are A publications in a very specific set of theoretically oriented journals. Other activities – even serving on panels for the National Academies – barely register.

    So, while I agree that we should seek to change the rules of academia to incentivize more public and political engagement, I note some conditions. First and foremost, changing the rules academia is an institutional challenge. If a school tried to change the rules of tenure for itself, junior faculty would be crazy to follow that school’s unique criteria. If they get denied tenure, they are in trouble. Their packet has to be marketable to other schools that likely value the old model. Second, senior faculty can begin to change these rules by both model behavior of engagement, advocating for its recognition, and mentoring junior faculty. On each of these elements, there is still much to learn; one can step into the public arena and make a mistake that has lasting implications. That is what I want this article to expose: what can we do to clarify the rules of engagement.

  4. Well stated, Margaret.

    I’ll add – it has often been frustrating to see how narrowly a successful academic career is construed. While nearly all of us gain our doctoral and postdoctoral training in “doctoral very high research” institutions where the route to tenure is primarily through academic scholarship and high levels of publication productivity, there are *many* different kinds of academic and research careers out there. In many of these settings both education (formal and informal) and public engagement are valued quite highly and indeed are at least as important in the route to career success as is scientific publication in the primary literature. And for many people these are not just “acceptable” alternatives to a career in an elite institution but actually preferable. I hope that Leopold Fellows do indeed step into leadership roles to help shape the view of “success” for those following us.

  5. This crucial conversation seems to be cropping up a lot lately. I agree with Margaret that, as scientists in senior positions, we are the ones who get to change academia so that it facilitates-and even improves-the practices of science communication, outreach, and engagement.

    Here at the University of Washington, we have been making progress toward this end. One of the first things we did, and are still doing, is having lots of conversations with faculty and students about the best way to support them in these activities. We are working to develop College-wide science communication training. We developed a College-level award recognizing excellence in community engagement.

    We are knee-deep in the conversation about how to design strategies to maximize impact and then how to assess progress. Increasingly, there are tools to help scientists track at least their online impacts (ImpactStory, Plum Analytics, and Altmetric are examples), as well as tools to make research products, like data, papers, and even grant proposals, both more transparent and more trackable (e.g., figshare). But the P&T challenge goes deeper, I’m finding, slowly transforming in response to both a top-down and a bottom-up process of first, making it okay to have this exact conversation in our halls, and second, working together to figure out workable policies that will adapt over time.

    Maybe if more faculty and academic leaders knew that each other was talking about changing academia to support academic engagement and science communication, then it would be an easier process to support each other in transforming our academic institutions. Wouldn’t it be great to take this conversation to a wider venue?

  6. Great discussion thus far! Since the discussion originally began on a listserv, I’ll take the liberty of pasting those initial responses here in chronological order:

    From Stuart Pimm, Duke U., 9/29/13 – “The final exam of my undergraduate/MSc conservation class is mock congressional testimony. And my Ph.D. students become involved in public engagement on the day that they arrive in my programme. ”

    From Josh Schimel, UCSB, 9/29/13 – “You’re working on Rule #12: Change the Rules of Academia. But the core concern I believe is valid: ‘Recognize the rules of academia.’
         For most institutions, ‘The route to tenure is still based on academic scholarship” remains true. But they vary in attitudes toward social engagement; for some, social engagement is considered valuable (as long as yore still doing the primary scholarship) while for others the strict ‘wait till tenure’ unfortunately remains true.
         It is important to remember that to have the maximum career impact, you have to have a career. You have to survive adn succeed within the rules and expectations of your Institution.”

    From Stuart Pimm, Duke, 9/29/13 – “Yes, I’m proud that I have former students in research universities. I would consider myself a failure if that were all. Recent fledges are at Microsoft Research (Cambridge), Wildlife Conservation Society (Colombia), IUCN (Switzerland), USAID (Peru), World Bank (DC), Fish & Wildlife Service (New Mexico), NOAA (Hawai’i), Centre for Wildlife Studies (India) and, yes, academia.
         Steve Schneider, who was a long-time friend, an inspiration, and someone I miss very much, once said that ‘too many people equate excellence with the face they see shaving in the mirror each morning.'”

    From Julia Parrish, U. of Washington, 9/30/13 – “It strikes me that academics are quite conservative (read boring, time-limited, scared, etc.) when it comes to assessment. We easily default to bean-counting and numeric indicators. Number of papers, number of talks, amount of grant funding, h factor. We do the same thing for grad school applicants (GREs, GPA, any pubs?).
         I strongly believe that elevating science communication (writ large) beyond the realm of academia is a good thing; in fact an essential thing (sidelight – I also believe that serious diversity and inclusion measures are needed, but that’s another story).
         Given the academic propensity for things numeric, is it possible to construct some sort of ranking, indicator, dashboard, whatever for scicomm? That is, is there a way to translate our values into the language and behavioral routines of our colleagues?”

    From Steve Jackson, U. of Wyoming, 9/30/13 – “This has been a useful discussion. Josh’s and Margaret’s points are well-taken. We are dealing with cultural change, which is by its very nature often slow. And universities are among the most conservative institutions in our society. ‘Those who can’ – the tenured faculty – have a responsibility, as Margaret points out, to work to change the rules of engagement. ‘Those who can’t’ – the vulnerable, untenured faculty in departments and institutions that remain hostile to anything beyond academic business-as-usual – should do whatever they can in the engagement arena, but need to weigh the risks and make sure they’re building the tenure credentials that will ensure their survival and eventual liberation. They should be able to rely on the advice and protection of local, likeminded senior faculty – provided such faculty are there to help.
         We need our Harry Hotspurs to call us to action and inspire us with their good works, but we also need the patient, day-to-day efforts of hundreds of individual faculty members to change the rules department by department, institution by institution.
         As an aside, I resigned my academic position a year ago, grabbing an opportunity to spin up a new federal (Dept. of Interior) Climate Science Center. My center (DOI Southwest CSC), and others in the network, funds climate-related research. However, the funding has strings attached: all projects are required to include direct and tangible engagement with resource managers (fed/state/regional/local/tribal agencies, NGOs etc.) from project inception and development through to completion. We don’t fund any project that lacks a substantive commitment on the part of the PIs to work directly with decision-makers. Our projects are selected on the basis of their potential to make a real difference in resource management. We have a small but growing stable of researchers at all career stages who are willing to step beyond the usual academic comfort zone of peer-reviewed publications. The ball moves, one person at a time.”

    From Karen Hodges, U. British Columbia, 9/30/10 – “I think a large part of the problem is trying to figure out norms to which to compare a candidate’s record. Just documenting that the person has done x amount of a certain kind of outreach is hard to evaluate on its own; my university tries hard to find comparators to gauge what normal / high quality amounts or kinds of x would look like, to see how the candidate is performing relative to an appropriate peer group. It’s bad enough trying to find suitable comparisons for publishing (impact factors and H indices and relatives are all badly flawed, never mind that often there are not nice analyses of how people in a particular discipline stack up on these quantitative measures), but trying to find comparison metrics for media outreach, uptake of one’s work in government documents or policies, membership on boards or panels, etc. is pretty hard to do. So even if there is willingness to credit these kinds of activities, I think people are still struggling to figure out how to do so in a meaningful way. It would be nice to have some published papers with such metrics / comparison data to which to refer.”

  7. More discussion from the Leopold listserv:

    From Josh Schimel, UCSB, 10/2/13 – “And yet, the main driver of promotion cases, at least at my University, is the letters from peers. And we don’t write those letters based on indices, but on personal knowledge of actual impact rather than impact factor. It seems that in the U.S. the metrics are more likely to drive routine advancement within ranks, rather than the career defining promotion steps.
         Even at the hiring stage, the numbers may drive whether a candidate makes it the short list, but it’s the personal interactions during the interview that determine whether they will get hired.”

    From Julia Parrish, U. of Washington, 10/2/13 – “[Yes], didn’t mean to suggest that numbers are everything.
         I was, however, thinking about how indices can sometimes go viral. Have you ever looked yourself up on rate my professor? checked out the number of chili peppers you’ve been rated? Although our community may not take these indices seriously, they are a nascent version of an index of our ability to translate science, at least to our undergraduate students.
         It struck me that an interesting challenge would be to attempt the construction of a translation impact (?) index. I have no idea how that might be done, maintained, displayed, accessed, etc. but that’s part of the challenge.”

    From Josh Schimel, UCSB, 10/2/13 – “[Yes]–it’s a truth about ratings going viral. Also, other nations are much more focused on using the metrics directly and explicitly in evaluating people and programs. And we could go down that route.”

    From Simon Donner, U. of British Columbia, 10/2/13 – “Earlier this year, I wrote this essay about the mythical “they” that discourage academics from engaging outside the ivory tower. The opening story is from my first Leopold training week:
         I think it comes down to being a good scientist first. Public engagement is valued, by the university, by granting agencies, by our peers, etc., if “they” think we know our stuff. Academics, in that sense, are not unique at all. You’ll find the same dynamic in any profession.”

  8. Is the scientist an authority, or is the scientist just the person who invents new experiments and helps others test the experiments for themselves?

    I recently brought an alarming scientific discovery about churches to my church and found that the deaf ear I received had less to do with the credibility of my message than with the motivation of my audience. When you deliver a lecture, you produce fatigue, but when you turn someone else into an expert eyewitness (someone who tests your experiment for themselves) then you produce someone with a sense of personal purpose.

    I’ve given up on trying to serve as an expert witness–my new focus is turning others (especially non-academics) into expert witnesses. I can’t say I’ve succeeded yet, but the path of trying to preserve one’s academic standing most certainly fails, so new paths are worth exploring.

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