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.

2 thoughts on “Structured Conversation on “Public Intellectualism”

  1. Here is a new article in EOS that is relevant to this conversation: “Is pretenure interdisciplinary research a career risk?”

    Despite initiatives to promote interdisciplinary research, early-career academics continue to perceive professional risks to working at the interface between traditional disciplines. Unexpectedly, the inherent practical challenges of interdisciplinary scholarship, such as new methodologies and lexicons, are not the chief source of the perceived risk. The perception of risk is pervasive across disciplines, and it persists despite efforts to support career development for individuals with common interests [Mitchell and Weiler, 2011]. Suggestions that interdisciplinary work can go unrewarded in academia [Clark et al., 2011] foster a concern that targeting interdisciplinary questions, such as those presented by climate change, will pose problems for acquiring and succeeding in a tenure-track position. If self-preservation limits the questions posed by early-career academics, a perceived career risk is as damaging as a real one to new transdisciplinary initiatives. Thus, institutions should address the source of this perception whether real or specious.

    Best regards,

  2. Excellent Eos article and post Andy! Thanks! I was at a workshop recently that discussed the pretenure interdisciplinary question in part, and one perspective that emerged was that the senior faculty, the chair, the dean, and/or the college promotion committee must have a believe in interdisciplinary research as well. It cannot be the young faculty member trying to make it through alone. Here’s hoping that “academic cultures” are changing for the better.

    Another thought was that the young faculty member must be very, very clear and articulate about the role that he/she has played on any interdisciplinary research team (and that this language should appear clearly in the tenure dossier).

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