The Balancing Act: Public Engagement for the Academic Scholar

November 5, 2013
Andrew J. Hoffman
University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment

Each spring, my colleagues and I perform a common ritual; we fill out our annual activities reports to summarize our research, teaching, and service accomplishments for the year. As we fill them out, we are keenly aware that the primary metric is really research, and in particular, research published in top tier academic journals. Attempts at public or political engagement are overlooked or even discouraged as an “impractical” waste of time. As these activities will not register in a promotion review, why would any person seeking job security do them? This is an important question to consider when we look upon the sorry state of scientific discourse in this country, and especially when we look to the academic scholar to help us improve it.

Microphone at podium

The Decline of Public Discourse on Science

We all have reason to be concerned about the quality of the public scientific discourse in this country. Scientific information has been used and misused to drive partisan agendas. And the American public does not appear to be a discerning consumer; the majority of the U.S. public is unable to pass a basic scientific literacy test and two-thirds do not clearly understand the scientific process.

This is dangerous.  In our increasingly technological world, issues like nanotechnology, stem-cell research, nuclear power, climate change, vaccines and autism, fracking, genetically modified organisms, and endocrine disruption require informed debate. Instead they have been caught up in the so-called “culture wars.” Many of our elected officials remain uneducated about science and are therefore susceptible to manipulation and distortion.

For this to change, we need a more socially literate scientific community, a more scientifically literate public, and a more scientifically informed political debate. The poor state of the public and political discussion on a range of scientific issues is, in part, the responsibility of the academic community. The challenge we face is about science communication as much as it is about the science itself.

The Obstacles to Academic Discourse in the Public Arena

Unfortunately, many excellent scientists are poor communicators who lack the skills, time, or inclination to play the role of educator to the general public and our political leaders. Academic scholars are often not trained, nor are they given the proper incentives, to do this kind of work. One survey found that many academics simply do not see their role “as an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making … and do not believe there are personal benefits for investing in these activities.” But scientists have a duty to both recognize science’s impact on society and communicate that impact to those who must live with the consequences. This requires a change in the rules of promotion within academia.

And indeed, there are both internal and external pressures to make such change. There are new and emerging challenges to the way we create and disseminate knowledge. Social media is “democratizing knowledge” in ways that allow competing notions of science (and at times pseudo-science) to enjoy a platform for entering the public discourse. Driving a proliferation of competing scientific views is a growing distortion of the research agenda by funding sources with specific interests.

For reasons of both internal coherence and external legitimacy, the scholarly community must adopt new practices and processes of engagement to assure that its voice is heard above the fray. Effective integration of faculty into public and political discourse can create new avenues for case-based and active learning opportunities, which are critical for educating the next generation of students and society.

Establishing Ground Rules for Academic Engagement in Public Discourse

How can this be done? A good many scientists are frustrated at sitting on the sidelines of the discourse they care so deeply about. But they are appropriately cautious, asking questions about how they can do this without losing their standing as objective subject-matter experts. Engagement is fraught with hazards and dangers that should not be taken lightly. An academic scholar could easily step over the line of objective science into advocacy and find that they have done irreparable harm to their career and their ability to persuade.

What we need are some clear guidelines for engagement for the academic community. This is an idea whose time has come. For example, the National Academies has convened two Sackler Colloquia on “The Science of Science Communication.” The social and decision sciences appear to be turning their attention to these issues in their journals. The Leopold Leadership Fellowship is training scholars to “translate their knowledge to action and for catalyzing change.” And organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and COMPASS are developing practical guides to help the growing community of scientists who are willing to take the next step in ensuring their research and expertise are making a valuable contribution to society.

To add to these valuable efforts, we need to establish some ground rules for academics to use in balancing their desires for engagement with those of a successful academic career. In a recent article in the Michigan Journal of Sustainability, I offered twelve suggestions, not as a definitive list, but as a way to start a conversation on this important topic. I welcome you to join in.

How should academics safely engage within public and political discourse? Where are the boundaries between being a scientific content source and scientific content advocate? What is the role of the academic scientist and what is the role of others (i.e. NGOs) in the scientific information process? How can the linkages between them be created and strengthened to protect the integrity of science and develop evidence-based platforms for communicating that content to policymakers and the public? How might the rules of academic promotion and tenure be amended to encourage further academic engagement in the critical scientific issues of our day?

These are important questions whose answers hold great importance for both a functioning democracy based on sound scientific reasoning and a vibrant academic community whose work helps us achieve it.

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan; a position that holds joint appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Natural Resources & Environment. Within this role, Andy also serves as Director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise. Andy is a member of the Science Network at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The UCS Science Network is an inclusive community of more than 25,000 scientists, engineers, economists, and other experts, focused on changing the world for the better. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the authors alone.