Nick Kristof’s piece decrying the distance between academia and the rest of society has, predictably, triggered a screaming firestorm in academia. That’s what you get when you poke the (over)educated, seriously literate beast. A lot of the criticism is very well written and thought out (outstanding examples here and here). But I fear that Kristof’s central message, that society needs a more engaged academia, is getting lost here. My main problem was not that Kristof was arguing for a more engaged academy, but that his prescriptions for how to bring about that engagement did not address the real incentives and barriers that academics negotiate when they try to engage with public debate.

So, in the interest of constructive criticism, I have some suggestions for things that Mr. Kristof might consider looking into – throwing a light on these challenges would actually serve to highlight the real, and often absurdly unnecessary, barriers between the academy and society. This is obviously just a tiny sample of potential topics, drawn from my own experiences in a top-tier department in a large, Research-1 state institution.

  1. Examine the system by which departments are “ranked” in the United States: The National Research Council (NRC) ranks departments at (not so) regular intervals, creating a sort of BCS ranking of departments, with about the same amount of accuracy and certainty. By and large, academics know these rankings are garbage, but administrations love to trot them out to demonstrate the excellence of their institution, and therefore justify the institutional budget/tuition/etc. But here’s a fun fact: if you dig into what counts in the rankings, you can quickly see why university administrations don’t necessarily care for academic outreach. For example, did you know that authoring an NRC report (which is seriously prestigious) DOES NOT COUNT AS A MEASURABLE PUBLICATION IN THE NRC RANKINGS? I know this because my department ran into this problem the last time around, with at least three members of our faculty losing multiple publications because the NRC did not count ITS OWN PUBLICATIONS. If those pubs were excluded, you can imagine that basically all reports in all contexts were excluded. So if administrations love rankings, and rankings hate outreach, you’re not going to get much outreach.
  2. Consider how academic evaluation’s over-focus on the number of articles produced creates less interesting, more arcane academic outputs: The production of knowledge in academia has, for some time, been driven by expectations of ever-greater output (as measured in research dollars and publications) with less input (fewer faculty members). These expectations govern everything from the evaluation of departments to individual tenure decisions. As a result, the publication requirements for tenure have become ever-more challenging, with expectations for the number of publications produced rising so steeply that many who recently got tenure might have published more articles than their very senior colleagues published to become full professors even two decades ago. This is driven by everything from departmental-level politics to the NRC rankings themselves, though I suspect a strong trickle-down effect here. In any case, this has created a crisis of knowledge production in which professors are incentivized to produce what my colleague Carl Dahlman once called the minimum publishable unit (MPU). Because expectations of performance are more and more heavily based on quantitative output (thanks, NRC!), as opposed to the quality of that output, it makes sense for faculty to shy away from “big question” articles that might chew up a lot of their data and interesting ideas, and instead package that same set of ideas as two or three smaller, much more arcane publications. This is a very real pressure: when I put out my retheorization of livelihoods approaches a year ago, more than one colleague suggested that I would have been better cutting its 15000 words into two 8500 word pieces, as it would have counted for more in my annual evaluation. Nothing has driven us toward a proliferation of small, specialized journals carrying tiny, arcane articles quite like this drive for quantification and greater production. Undoing this really awful trend would help a lot, as academics would be freed up to think big thoughts again, both in journals and in other fora. One way to help: publicize the alt-metrics movement (start at the LSE Impact Blog and work from there) that attempts to move beyond a system of academic assessment that reflects a long-dead era of publication and communication.
  3. Focus on how for-profit academic publishers wall off knowledge from the public: Academics must publish to survive professionally, and the best journals in nearly every field are the last profitable properties for a number of publishing houses. These publishers benefit from free labor on the part of authors, reviewers, and the nearly-free labor of editors, and often the subsidy of taxpayer-funded research, yet charge exorbitant amounts for subscriptions to their journals – in the case of public universities, bleeding the taxpayer once again. Academics are absolutely responsible for this situation – after all, we collectively define what the good journals are, and as I’ve argued before we could change our minds if we wanted to. But academia takes time to change, and could use a push. Where is the push from the federal government to demand that the results of taxpayer-funded research be made available to the taxpayers immediately? What happened to the initial push from the Obama White House on this issue? It seems to be a topic ripe for a good investigative journalist.

And, for good measure, an interesting trend that will likely lead to a more engaged academia:

  1. The shift in acceptable academic funding: Until very recently, academic grants from traditional agencies like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health were given exalted status, with all other forms of funding occupying lesser rungs on the great chain of funding. Thus, to get tenure, many (biophysical science/social science) academics really had to land one of these grants. The programs associated with these grants very often rewarded pure research and actively discouraged “applied” work, and even today the NSF’s requirements for “impact” are fairly surficial. Contracts were very second-tier, and often not taken seriously in one’s academic review. Now, thanks to funding crunches in both universities and the funding agencies, any research-looking dollars have started looking good to university administrations, and contracts are more and more being evaluated alongside more traditional academic grants. There is a tremendous opportunity here to engage academia through this mechanism. [Full disclosure: I’ve been funded in the past by NSF and by the National Geographic Society, but today roughly 90% of my funding comes directly or indirectly from development donors like USAID in the form of contracts or grants]

This is hardly a comprehensive list of things into which a serious journalist could shed light on, and perhaps help leverage change. I’m just typing quickly here. If you have other ideas for things that journalists should be examining, please leave them in the comments or email them to me: ed at edwardrcarr.com   I will append them to this post as they come in, attributing them (or not, depending on the wishes of contributors) in the post.