Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

February 09, 2015

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Obama sounded the alarm on climate change, pausing to enumerate his administration’s accomplishments but also underscoring the problems that lie ahead. Though his speech encompassed myriad issues facing the American public, Obama emphasized that "no challenge—no challenge—poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

His comments follow years of political inertia on the issue, despite scientists’ increasingly bleak predictions. This lack of political will prompted the president to appeal to the room full of policy makers to heed the scientific consensus on climate change and take decisive action, recalling to them their responsibility to take seriously the expert testimony of the research and academic communities.

Yet, just as the members of Congress have an obligation to listen to the informed advice of researchers and scholars, so too do academics have a duty to make themselves heard in the public and political spheres, inserting their voices into debates where expert knowledge can move the conversation forward. Unfortunately, the present culture of academe often runs counter to this kind of open and accessible engagement, to the detriment of both the voting public and the academic community.

One reason for this disconnect is that academe has become a field of "brick makers." This was the theme of a letter by Bernard K. Forscher published in Science magazine in 1963, and his critique, in the form of a parable, is even more relevant today. Forscher lamented that academic scholarship had become fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge—bricks—and was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole. In time, he said, brick-making had become an end in itself. Indeed, his metaphor aptly depicts today’s reality.

Academic success lies in publishing academic journal articles that make incremental contributions to theory, not in summarizing the broader contributions of the community of scholars. Specialization, not generalization, is the signal of academic rigor. The conventional rules of academic tenure and promotion steer all in that direction. With some notable exceptions, few social scientists are building an edifice, telling a whole story as it presently exists, and deciding what new pieces of information (bricks) may be necessary to tell the next chapter in the story.

It is time for that to change. It is time to build the wall from the large and growing body of research in the physical and social sciences on a host of issues: not just climate change, but also nanotechnology, nuclear power, autism and vaccines, GMOs, and more. Academic scholarship can and must enter more fully into the national debate on these issues, and other academics must build on that scholarship.

Not only must collective academic knowledge be accumulated in this way, it is equally crucial that it be made available and accessible to an educated public that can put the insights of this research to use. Again, this is not something for which academe rewards scholars and scientists. Academics are encouraged to build bricks that are used—or more accurately, cited—by other brick-makers. The predominant focus on A-level journals feeds what some have called our "theory fetish," in which practical relevance takes a back seat to theoretical rigor, and empirical evidence is used to inform theory, not the other way around. Russell Jacoby, a professor of history at UCLA, warns in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals that the increasing insularity of individual academic fields "registers not the needs of truth but academic-empire building." Academics find themselves talking to ever smaller and narrower academic audiences, using a language that educated readers do not understand, publishing in journals they don’t read, and asking questions they don’t care about. Whether this work actually creates real-world change is a question that is rarely, if ever, asked.

A 2013 faculty survey at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor found that 66 percent believed that external engagement was complementary to their academic research, 34 percent believed it was downright dangerous (as it was often misquoted), and 41 percent believed it was time-consuming and distracting.

This, I believe, is dangerous—for both society and higher education. One of the reasons (among many) that the public discourse on critical scientific issues of our day has become so confused is that too many academics, according to a 2014 study by John Besley in Science and Public Policy, do not see their role "as an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making through formats such as deliberative meetings, and do not believe there are personal benefits for investing in these activities." And yet if society is to make wise choices, those who create knowledge must move it beyond the ivory tower.

The role of the academic scholar in society is in flux today. Social media is "democratizing knowledge," allowing all forms of "research" to enter the public discourse and influence the democratic process. At the same time, state legislatures are cutting funds to higher education and there is a growing distortion of the research agenda by funding sources with specific interests. Against this backdrop, academic researchers can continue to write for specialized journals, but in so doing they become further relegated to the sidelines. To revitalize their fields, they must embark on a new effort at public engagement, embracing, as the Berkeley sociologist Michael Burawoy explains, "the necessity and possibility of moving from interpretation to engagement, from theory to practice, from the academy to its publics."

The problem is that many excellent scientists lack the skills, time, inclination, or incentives to play the role of educator to the general public and political leaders, especially when faced with an apparent lack of interest on the part of the broader public. As the prevailing logic goes, academic scholars develop data, models, and conclusions and expect the public and politicians to accept those conclusions because the scholars’ methods and interests are established within their communities and should not be questioned. But knowledge is never socially or politically inert, particularly when it results in changes in the way people live their lives, and academic scholars have a duty to both recognize the impact of their work on society and communicate that impact to those who must live with the consequences.

In the end, whether any scholar can succeed in the goals of constructing buildings from academic bricks and using that work to reach a broader public is up to the scholar and the community of readers. Success will be measured not in citation counts but by the extent to which scholarly research changes the way people think about the problems we face and their solutions. The actual metrics for the attainment of that success are anyone’s guess. But that should not discourage those who wish to make an impact beyond the campus walls.

Andrew J. Hoffman is a professor and director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. This essay is adapted from his book How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (Stanford University Press, 2015)