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.).

Structured Conversation on “Public Intellectualism”

The Leopold Leadership Program is designed to encourage academic scholars to play a larger role in public and political debates on critical environmental issues.  While I am excited to step more fully into this role, what some might call that of a “public intellectual,” I think that we need to be careful and cognizant that there are hazards along the way.  If we are not careful, we may find ourselves losing the legitimacy of the role of an objective academic scholar to being seen as an interested and subjectively biased advocate.  There is an important need to discuss and layout the landscape of public engagement for academic scholars.  So, to start this process, the following notes and questions offer a way to create a structured discussion on the questionHow to play (tactics, pitfalls) the “public intellectual” without stepping over the line to losing the objectivity of academia?

To begin the discussion, Roger Pielke Jr. (in his book The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2007) offers four roles that scientists can play in policy debates.

1.  Pure scientist:  Focus on research with no consideration for its utility—“more frequently a myth”

2. Issue advocate:  Focus on implications of research with a particular policy agenda—“reduce scope of  available choice”

3. Science Arbiter:  Seeks to stay removed from politics, but resolves positive questions from politicians  (ie. National Research Council)

4. Honest Broker: Seeks to integrate scientific knowledge with a stakeholder concerns by offering  alternate possible courses—“expands scope of available choice”

With this as a starting structure, here are a series of questions that can guide discussion on this important topic:

1.  How far outside our area of specialization can we drift in our public comments?  We have seen economists comment on climate modeling, and climate scientists comment on cap and trade.  Is this out of bounds for us as academics?

2.  On that count, where do we draw the line between being an academic and being a public citizen?  Certainly we can talk in the abstract about putting different hats on. But in practice it is not so easy or clear.

3.  When we get hostile emails, do we reply?  When we have hostile comments following an article or editorial, do we reply?

4.  Are there any outlets are illegitimate (journals, editorials, blogs, tweets, business conferences, skeptic conferences, etc)?

5.  Should we lend our name to notably political issues?  For example, there is a referendum on a Renewable Portfolio Standard here in Michigan (25% by 2025).  Is there any risk to my academic legitimacy by adding my name so such an initiative?  What if it was more extreme – a ban on all meat sales, to be extreme.

6.  Roger Pielke describes the “Honest Broker” as one who “expand the scope of choice available to decision-makers…and explicitly integrate scientific knowledge with stakeholder concerns in the form of alternative possible courses of action.”  He/she provides all information on a particular topic and allows policy makers and the public to reduce the scope (i.e. make a decision).  He differentiates this from the “Pure Scientist” (who focuses on research with no consideration for its use or utility. He adds that this role is more frequently found in myth than practice), the “Issue Advocate” focuses on the “implications of research for a particular political agenda,” and the “Science Arbiter” who will answer questions from decision makers to clarify research (i.e. the National Academies).  Do people agree with this structure, or do they find it too confining?

7.  Pidgeon and Fischoff argue that the current climate debate will require the coordination of multiple roles within climate science: “(1) Subject-matter experts to present the latest scientific findings, (2) decision scientists who can identify the most relevant aspects of that science and summarize it concisely, (3) Social and communication scientists who can assess the public’s beliefs and values, propose evidence based designs for communicating content and processes, and evaluate their performance, and (4) Program designers who can orchestrate the process, so that mutually respectful consultations occur, messages are properly delivered, and policymakers hear their various publics.”  Does this resonate with people?  Should academic scholars rely on others in the research process stream to disseminate their work?

8.  Do people have good role models of academics who stay academic scholars while wading into the public and political debate?

9.  How does the idea of playing the role of public intellectual change our publication strategy and outlets?

10.  Is this a role that can only be played at certain stages of our careers?

11.  How do we work this idea into the four part structure that Roger Peilke develops in his book “The Honest Broker”?

12.  What other questions are out there for how to play this role?  I feel that the terrain is not well mapped out.