Yes, another piece of academic navel gazing in what has been an interesting week of gazing at the question of the contribution of academics to society. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column framing of academics as a intellectual snobs who don’t contribute to society, catalyzed a heated backlash in the twitterverse. Academics who, in a variety of different ways, see public engagement as core to their work pointed out that his critique was outdated, narrow, masculine, elitist and just plain wrong. Much of this debate has focused on academic incentive structures or the varied ways that academics currently engage and contribute to the public sphere. But there is one perspective that hasn’t had so much airtime: changing the way academics do research to build better connections between their knowledge, policy and practice. These approaches use the research process, not just the research outputs, to understand, participate in, and catalyze change.
This debate [see this post for a roundup of responses] has largely characterized the research process in a model where researchers finding out new and exciting things and then communicate them to folks involved with policy and practice. Decades of critique in the failings of this linear model have led many academics to find alternatives (hence the work of all those #engagedacademics). The linear model neglects the messy reality of the interface between knowledge and change (in individual behavior, public policy, or in my field, land management and conservation practice), which is far from rational or linear and it rarely emerges from an end of pipe translation of academic knowledge for “lay publics”. As Erica Chenoweth pointed out, just because academic knowledge isn’t influencing the policies in DC it doesn’t mean that it isn’t making change in the world. There are many ways and many places for academic knowledge to make the contribution that Kristof is calling for.
Raul Pacheco-Vega touched on this in a post published in early Feb, writing about the challenges of being a public policy professor and public intellectual. Like Raul, I work in the space of intractable natural resource governance (namely climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation). A growing number of academics who work in this space see their knowledge as just one of the many voices that are needed to address the kinds of problems that Kristoff laments. This changes the role of researchers and research-based knowledge from being the bearers of truth and solutions to participating in collaborative processes targeted at developing knowledge to address particular challenges or problems.
I’ve written about this type of scholarship before. Knowledge co-production sees the interactions between research, policy, and practice as dynamic and messy. These endeavors are anything but linear, as different actors come together to share their different perspectives to generate new insight that transcends any one singular perspective. Co-production is the latest buzz word in science policy scholarship, a new normative goal whereby academic research strives to be exactly the opposite of what Kristof accuses it of being. With initiatives like Future Earth running with co-production as a major pillar of their research endeavors it is clear that this approach no longer exists in the academic fringe.
In my own research, I’m currently working in a diverse team of climate, ecological, and social scientists from three different universities, practitioners and conservation planners from local NGO partners and major federal agencies. Our mandate is to produce knowledge that will be guided by and useful for the needs of land managers from the US Departments of Interior and Agriculture. Next week my colleges and I will be hosting a workshop for said managers where they will be selecting the focus of our research. This is not about producing academic papers that might be read by these managers. Rather, the research has been designed to actively engage different folks in a process that will build direct connections between our collective work and the decision-makers in the landscape we’re working in.
Co-production is not a silver bullet. These efforts struggles with all the challenges outlined in this debate. Academics, policy-makers, decision-makers, and practitioners come from different worlds, we speak different languages and see generally these problems differently. Our interactions are strained by cultural differences, power relations as well as funding and incentive structures that don’t reward the time it takes to do collaborative research. We don’t know how to do this very well, so co-production is both a research goal and a research subject in its own right. Part of this research agenda is focused on understanding how to more effectively bring research-based knowledge into policy and practice.
I have never seen my academic career as condemning me to irrelevance. Rather, I see academia as a place, albeit a highly privileged one, from which I can make a contribution to the challenges our society faces. The primary vehicle for my influence is not the papers that I write, but the processes I engage in. Changing the world will not come about by translating our gobbledegook into “plain language” so that “lay stakeholders” can go forth and implement our wisdom. By actively engaging with practitioners, landowners, decision-makers, and policy makers these collaborative research processes, not just their outputs become the contribution to a more sustainable future.