Society – we need you!

I thought it best to comment on Nicholas Kristof’s column Professors, We Need You! via the blogsite that Ohio State University developed to support faculty outreach and media efforts.

In this column, Mr. Kristof complains that professors are becoming marginalized and detached from important policy debates because many fields are becoming too specialized and quantitative.  Yet, I can immediately think of two fields that are very specialized and quantitative, and yet remain very relevant – economics (mentioned by Kristof) and physics.  The latter is especially interesting – physics is a discipline whose cutting-edge postulates things that cannot be measured in the real world (see: string theory), or can only be measured at very high cost.  Yet, they still make headlines and get huge amounts of money from the public coffers to build supercolliders.  Economists have huge influence on policy (even though their track record is no better than the rest of the social sciences; see: 2008).

I don’t view specialization and especially quantification in the social sciences as a bug but a feature – it is inevitable as the cutting-edge of knowledge moves forward (see – physics).  It is also valuable as the social sciences become more data-driven due to the unprecedented flood of data now available about people and societies.

I agree with Mr Kristof about the increasing pressure on academics to generate products on a frequent basis – in particular, grants and publications.  This comes at the cost of longer-term thinking, riskier projects and public engagement – especially during the tenure process.  In some ways this is also a outgrowth of a data-driven and measure-centric society: we measure what we can measure, and we get what we measure.  But, this is also a result of increased pressure on academics due to declining support for science and public higher education.  More PhDs chasing fewer professoriates and dwindling grant money means more time devoted to measurable products that “count.”  Its an arms race out there – just getting interviewed for a tenure-track position requires a publication and project record that would have earned tenure 25-30 years ago.

Many professors and universities get the need for greater engagement.  I have colleagues at Ohio State University who are very media forward – for example, Peter Shane in the School of Law writes for the Huffington Post, and Jennifer Evans-Cowley in City and Regional Planning blogs at Planetizen.  Also, note this blogsite – OSU has created u.osu.edu so that professors like me can be more engaged (and pontificate about New York Times opinion pieces on a Sunday morning).  Further afield, David Levinson at the University of Minnesota runs The Transportationist blog.  And who can avoid Richard Florida these days?

Mr. Kristof is generally correct that more professors should be engaged, and the universities should value outreach and engagement activities.  If we do, perhaps we will see a more scientifically literate society and maybe even reverse decades of declining support for science and higher education.  I nevertheless rise in defense of the professoriate – we are not willingly withdrawing from the world; we are responding to an environment with declining support and greater emphasis on productivity measures.

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