Entries tagged with “academia”.


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.

Edit 17 February: If you want to move beyond criticism (and snark), join me in thinking about things that Mr. Kristof should look into/write about if he really wants a more engaged academia here.

In his Saturday column, Nick Kristof joins a long line of people, academics and otherwise, who decry the distance between academia and society. While I greatly appreciate his call to engage more with society and its questions (something I think I embody in my own career), I found his column to be riddled with so many misunderstandings/misrepresentations of academia that, in the end, he contributes nothing to the conversation.

What issues, you ask?

1) He misdiagnoses the problem

If you read the column quickly, it seems that Kristof blames academic culture for the lack of public engagement he decries. This, of course, ignores the real problem, which is more accurately diagnosed by Will McCants’s (oddly marginalized) quotes in the column. Sure, there are academics out there with no interest in public engagement. And that is fine, by the way – people can make their own choices about what they do and why. But to suggest that all of academia is governed by a culture that rejects public engagement deeply misrepresents the problem. The problem is the academic rewards system which currently gives us job security and rewards for publishing in academic journals, and nearly nothing for public outreach. To quote McCants:

If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.

This is not a problem of academic culture, this is a problem of university management – administrations decide who gets tenure, and on what standard. If university administrations decided to halve the number of articles required for tenure, and replaced that academic production with a demand that professors write a certain number of op-eds, run blogs with a certain number of monthly visitors, or participate in policy development processes, I assure you the world would be overrun with academic engagement. So if you want more engagement, go holler at some university presidents and provosts, and lay off the assistant professors.

2) Kristof takes aim at academic prose – but not really:

 …academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose.

Well, yes. There is a lot of horrific prose in academia – but Kristof seems to suggest that crap writing is a requirement of academic work. It is not – I guarantee you that the best writers are generally cited a lot more than the worst. So Kristof has unfairly demonized academia as willfully holding the public at bay with its crappy writing, which completely misdiagnoses the problem. The problem is that the vast majority of academia isn’t trained in writing (beyond a freshman composition course), there is no money in academia for the editorial staff that professional writers (and columnists) rely on to clean up their own turgid prose, and the really simple fact that we all tend to write like what we read. Because academic prose is mostly terrible, people who read it tend to write terrible prose. This is why I am always reading short fiction (Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, etc.) alongside my work reading…

If you want better academic prose, budget for the same editorial support, say, that the New York Times or the New Yorker provide for their writers. I assure you, academic writing would be fantastic almost immediately.

Side note: Kristof implicitly sets academic writing against all other sources of writing, which leads me to wonder if he’s ever read a policy document. I helped author one, and I read many, while at USAID. The prose was generally horrific…

3) His implicit prescription for more engaged writing is a disaster

Kristof notes that “In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.” In short, he sees engagement as prescription. Which is exactly the wrong way to go about it. I have served as a policy advisor to a political appointee. I can assure you that handing a political appointee a prescription is no guarantee they will adopt it. Indeed, I think they are probably less likely to adopt it because it isn’t their idea. Policy prescriptions preclude ownership of the conclusion and needed responses by the policymaker. Better to lay out clear evidence for the causes of particular challenges, or the impacts of different decisions. Does academia do enough of this? Probably not. But for heaven’s sake, don’t start writing prescriptive pieces. All that will do is perpetuate our marginality through other means.

4) He confuses causes and effects in his argument that political diversity produces greater societal impact.

Arguing that the greater public engagement of economists is about their political diversity requires ignoring most of the 20th century history of thought within which disciplines took shape. Just as geography became a massive discipline in England and other countries with large colonial holdings because of the ways that discipline fit into national needs, so economics became massive here in the US in response to various needs at different times that were captured (for better or for worse) by economics. I would argue that the political diversity in economics is a product of its engagement with the political sphere, as people realized that economic thought could shift/drive political agendas…not the other way around.

5) There is a large movement underway in academia to rethink “impact”.

There is too much under this heading to cover in a single post. But go visit the LSE Impact Blog to see the diversity of efforts to measure academic impact currently in play – everything from rethinking traditional journal metrics to looking at professors’ reach on Twitter. Mr. Kristof is about 4 years late to this argument.

In short, Kristof has recognized a problem that has been discussed…forever, by an awful lot of people. But he clearly has no idea where the problem comes from, and therefore offers nothing of use when it comes to solutions. All this column does is perpetuate several misunderstandings of academia that have contributed to its marginalization – which seems to be the opposite of the columns’ intent.

Since returning to academia in August of 2012, I’ve been pretty swamped. Those who follow this blog, or my twitter feed, know that my rate of posting has been way, way down. It’s not that I got bored with social media, or tired of talking about development, humanitarian assistance, and environmental change. I’ve just been swamped. The transition back to academia took much more out of me than I expected, and I took on far, far too much work. The result – a lot of lost sleep, and a lapsed social media profile in the virtual world, and a lapsed social life in the real world.

One of the things I’ve been working on is getting and organizing enough support around here to do everything I’m supposed to be doing – that means getting grad students and (coming soon) a research associate/postdoc to help out. Well, we’re about 75% of the way there, and if I wait for 100% I’ll probably never get to introduce you all to HURDL…

HURDL is the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab here at the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. It’s also a less-than-subtle wink at my previous career in track and field. HURDL is the academic home for me and several (very smart) grad students, and the institution managing about five different workflows for different donors and implementers.  Basically, we are the qualitative/social science research team for a series of different projects that range from policy development to project design and implementation. Sometimes we are doing traditional academic research. Mostly, we do hybrid work that combines primary research with policy and/or implementation needs. I’m not going to go into huge detail here, because we finally have a lab website up. The site includes pages for our personnel, our projects, our lab-related publications, and some media (still under development). We’ll need to put up a news feed and likely a listing of the talks we give in different places.

Have a look around. I think you’ll have a sense of why I’ve been in a social media cave for a while. Luckily, I am surrounded by really smart, dedicated people, and am in a position to add at least one more staff position soon, so I might actually be back on the blog (and sleeping more than 6 hours a night) again soon!

Let us know what you think – this is just a first cut at the page. We’d love suggestions, comments, whatever you have – we want this to be an effective page, and a digital ambassador for our work…

So, some of you might have wondered where the guy who ground out a lot of longish (too-longish?), wonky blog posts has gone over the past year and a half or so. Well, the transition back to academia was much bumpier than I had anticipated. Funding for research takes time to arrive, as does the support (i.e. skilled labor) necessary to make that research happen. And then there is the fact I teach two classes a semester – and they are not small classes. I just finished my annual reporting for 2013, and because of this exercise I know that I taught 261 students last year. In four courses – one of which was a 12-person graduate seminar, so you do the math on my average undergraduate class size. It’s…not ideal.

I’m also now dealing with a complete reversal of my situation back in 2009-10, when I decided to leave academia for a while and go work at USAID. Back then, I felt completely disconnected from development policy and implementation. I was frustrated and bored. Now, I have a small lab running five different projects, only one of which is “pure” research. But we are not fully staffed yet – we’re about to search for a research associate to take up some of the load – and the result has been a lot of nights with less than six hours of sleep. This is hard, but as I remind people, it beats being ignored.

So, until about a week ago, I simply could not get my head above water long enough to blog. I think that is going to change over the next few months, as we get things under control in the lab. So, for that small but dedicated fanbase of the longish, wonky development blog posts, soon you will have more to read.

In the meantime, I’ve finally updated my personal homepage. There are new publications up, new preprints up, and a new mission statement on the home page. This week, I will walk you through these new pubs and ideas. I’m also at work on a new lab page. This will introduce you to a new cast of characters, and a new set of projects, that should keep things interesting around here for a while. I’m not yet sure about the relationship between the lab and this blog – I have to work that out. But the lab will have a twitter account, likely an Instagram account (we’re going to be going a lot of places), and the web page will have project-related videos. It should be pretty cool.

Thanks for bearing with me over the past year and a half. Watch this space – it should get interesting.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that Elsevier, the Dutch academic publishing giant, has started issuing takedown orders to Academia.edu, a social-networking website for academics where many members post .pdf versions of their work for sharing. In fact, I received a notification from Academia.edu yesterday that one of my posted articles had received a takedown notice from Elsevier – it is a piece I am the fourth author on, but I still like the piece and find myself greatly annoyed this happened. On the other hand, it was sort of inevitable – I’ve published a good bit, and a lot of my stuff is available in various forms in various locations, so sooner or later one of those repositories was going to receive a takedown notice.

The Chronicle article is fine – basically, a rehash of the ongoing debate about academic publishing, profit models, and the rights of researchers to disseminate their research findings. But the comments section of the piece is a microcosm of why this debate persists – basically, the commenters sit on two sides: “information should be free and accessible” versus “if you don’t like it, stop signing contracts/publishing with journals that restrict your rights as an author.” This is not helpful – most academics want their work to be free, and we are not idiots when it comes to the contracts we sign when we publish. We sign them BECAUSE WE HAVE TO.

For those who are not academics, let me walk you through the problem. For academics in research-focused universities (and increasingly in teaching-focused institutions) a record of publication is our legitimacy, our standing in our discipline, our leverage for higher salaries or new jobs. And while the pervasiveness of electronic resources and networks have started to change the publishing landscape, as of now there still exists a hierarchy of journals in each discipline. And for most of us, that hierarchy matters – you simply must publish at least some pieces in the top tier of journals if you are to be tenured and promoted, and if you are to be taken seriously within your discipline. This is institutional reality. And guess who controls nearly all of those journals? For-profit academic publishers like Elsevier.

Let me lay this out in a simple scenario: You are a tenure-track assistant professor, and after a few years of research, data analysis, and writing, you’ve finally gotten a manuscript accepted by one of the very top journals in your field. You NEED this publication to ensure that your tenure file, which will go into review in the coming year, will be reviewed positively. Soon after your notification of the article’s acceptance, you receive the publishing contract from Elsevier/Springer/whoever and it says the usual restrictive things about not posting your own work. You hate this, as it means that those without access to academic libraries and interlibrary loan will likely have to pay $30 or more to access your article – in other words, nobody outside of academia will access or read your work. But if you refuse to sign, the publisher will not publish your manuscript. Here is your dilemma: at this point, do you withdraw the manuscript and send it to a new journal with more liberal author rights? If you do, you are certainly sending it to a lower-ranked journal, and you will have to go through peer review all over again, ensuring that the manuscript will not be accepted or published by the time your tenure file is submitted…which will really hurt your tenure case. Or do you sign the stupid contract because you absolutely must have this publication?

I think everyone reading this knows which way this decision is going to go. So do the publishers. This is why the model persists, people – not because academics are stupid, but because we are trapped in an institutional model that gives us very few degrees of freedom on this issue. It’s also not because academics are greedy. Note that I never talked about money, because academics DO NOT GET PAID FOR THESE ARTICLES. At all.

This is why I argued that a real change in this model will require disciplinary reorientations/reorganizations that recognize a whole new set of publishers/journals as legitimate/important outlets. It is the only way academia can really undermine the for-profit academic publishers and end the practice of restrictive publishing and dissemination contracts, as it would make the boycott/avoidance of such publishers a real possibility within the institutional realities of academia today.

Until disciplines, or at the very least particular institutions that are seen as academic leaders, start to recognize alternative journals or means of publication as legitimate outputs that will facilitate a path to tenure and promotion, we will be having the same conversations about academic publishing. Of course, there is one other possible lever that I have raised before – the White House could issue an executive directive reorganizing federally-funded research such that copyright does not attach. Federal employees currently publish in academic journals without transferring copyright (in these situations, there is no copyright to transfer to a journal), so there is a model in place for this. In the end, this makes a great deal of sense no matter how you feel about academic publishing, as these publications represent findings that were obtained via the expenditure of public money, so allowing private profit from such “public goods” is pretty perverse.

The White House appears to have considered this, but there has been little recent noise on this front – perhaps because of major exertions by the publishers to neuter this effort. My guess is that the decision-makers in the White House don’t really understand academic publishing and the institutional structures that maintain it (as opposed to OSTP, which is staffed with people who do, but serve in a mostly advisory capacity to the decision-makers). If they did, they would realize that most arguments for the persistence of exclusive publishing rights with for-profit academic publishers in the era of the Internet make no sense at all. It’s harder for an industry lobby to win an argument when those they are lobbying actually understand the rules of the game…

There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.

The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.

Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.

Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.

So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.

I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming.  If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.

I’ve been off the blog for a while now. OK, about two months, which is too long. The new semester, and a really large number of projects, has landed on me like an avalanche. I have a small lab that I now manage (the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab, HURDL), and while I am fortunate to have a bunch of really good students in that lab, I’ve never run a lab before (nor have I ever worked in someone else’s lab before). So figuring out how best to manage projects and personnel is a new challenge that eats up time. As I told my students, this is not a fully operational, efficient program that they have joined. It’s more like a car that has stalled, and every day I am pushing it along screaming “pop the clutch” at whoever is in the driver’s seat.  To follow the metaphor, there are a lot of fits and starts right now, but things are coming together.  Among them:

  • A report on gender and adaptation in agrarian settings for USAID’s Office of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and the Office of Global Climate Change which, through both literature review and empirical example, is a first step toward thinking about and implementing much more complex ideas about gender in project design and evaluation. This report will spawn several related journal articles. Watch this space for both activities and publications.
  • A long-awaited report offering a detailed, if preliminary, assessment of the Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Advisory Program. I started this project before I left USAID, but it is finally coming together. Again, a set of journal articles will come from this – our empirical basis alone is absurd (720 interviews, 144 focus groups, 36 villages covering most of Southern Mali).  There are going to be a lot of interesting lessons for those interested in providing weather and climate information to farmers in this report…
  • A white paper/refereed article laying out how to implement the Livelihoods as Governmentality (LAG) approach that I presented in this article earlier this year. It is one thing to present a reframing of livelihoods decision-making and the livelihoods approach, and another to make it implementable. One of my students and I piloted this approach over the summer in Senegal, and we are pulling it together for publication now.  This will become the core of some trainings that we are likely to be doing in 2014 as we start building capacity in various countries to conduct detailed livelihoods analyses that might inform project design.

Then there is work in Zambia with the Red Cross on anticipatory humanitarian assistance (focused on hydrometeorological hazards), and a new project as part of a rather huge consortium looking at migration as an adaptation strategy in deltas in several parts of the world.

Did I mention that it’s a small lab – me and three other students working on all of this? Yeah, we’re a little short-staffed. I’m supposed to have a postdoc/research associate on board to help as well, but there have been some contract challenges that have prevented me from advertising the position. I hope to have that out some time in the next month or two, ideally to bring someone on for a year, extendable if the funding comes through.  So if you are interested in gender and some combination of development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction/humanitarian assistance, and want to join a really outstanding group of people wired in to a lot of donors and partners, and working on projects that bring critical scholarship to the ground, let me know…

So that’s where I’ve been hiding. I am crawling out from under the rock, and hope to rejoin the blogosphere in a more active capacity in coming weeks. Thanks for your patience…

So, climate change and conflict is back in the media, seemingly with the strength of science behind it.  I’ve been a rather direct, harsh critic of some work on this connection before, at least in part because I am deeply concerned that work on this subject (which remains preliminary) might disproportionately influence policy decisions in unproductive or even problematic directions (i.e. by contributing to the unnecessary militarization of development aid and humanitarian assistance).  So, when CNN, the Guardian, and other media outlets jumped on a new paper in Science (sorry, paywalled) last week, and one of the authors was responsible for the paper I critiqued so harshly before, I felt compelled to read it – especially after seeing Keith Kloor’s great post on the issue. After reading it, I feel compelled to comment on it.

My response is lengthy, so for those on a time budget, I offer some takeaway points. The main post, with details, follows.

Takeaway points

  • The Hsaing, et al paper in Science makes claims that are much more nuanced than what is represented either in the press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, or in many of the media stories (especially the big outlets) about them.
    • The actual findings of the paper simply reiterate long-held understandings of the connection between climate change and conflict
    • These findings are, in summary:
      • The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
      • Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
      • Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
      • Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future
    • We already knew all of this
      • The authors’ claims (as stated in this press release from Princeton) that this study was necessary to establish a causal relationship between changing climate conditions and conflict is based on a straw man of “people” who have been skeptical of “an individual study here or there.”
      • Much of the literature, and those working on this issue, have long accepted the idea of a complex link between changing climate/weather conditions and conflict. The real question is that of how climate variability and change contribute to rates of conflict.
      • The paper does not answer this question
  • The quantification of increased risk of conflict in the paper is problematic, as the authors appear to assume a constant relationship, year-to-year or season-to-season, between climate conditions and their influence on various drivers of conflict.
    • This assumption has long been discarded in studies of food security and famine
    • This assumption likely introduces significant margins of error to the findings of this paper regarding increased risk of conflict associated with climate change
  • The paper does not address the real research frontier in the study of conflict and climate change because it does not further our understanding of how climate variability and change result in increased risk of conflict
    • To the author’s credit, the paper does not purport to explain how observed climate variability and change are translated into conflict
    • The paper merely summarizes existing literature exploring this issue
    • The findings of the paper do not present an opportunity to adjust policy, programs, or diplomacy to avoid future conflicts, as they do not identify specific issues that should be addressed by such efforts.
    • To some extent, this makes the critique under #2 above irrelevant – the “risk of conflict” figures were never actionable anyway
  • Media coverage of this paper amounts to much ado about nothing new

 

Main Post

The Hsaing, et al paper bears little resemblance to the media stories written about it. It makes very measured, fairly contained claims about climate change and conflict that, if represented accurately in the media, probably would not have made for interesting stories. That said, the article deserves critical attention on its own terms so we can understand what, if any, new information is here.

First, I want to start with the good in this paper. This is a substantially more careful paper than the one I critiqued before, both with regard to its attention to existing work on the subject and to the claims it makes about the connections between climate change and conflict. The authors deserve credit for noting the long history of qualitative work on conflict and the environment, a literature often ignored by those conducting large, more quantitative studies. They also should be commended for their caution in identifying causal relationships, instead of basic correlations.

In my opinion, this much more measured approach to thinking about climate change and conflict has resulted in more nuanced claims. First, as the authors note:

“Social conflicts at all scales and levels of organization appear susceptible to climatic influence, and multiple dimensions of the climate system are capable of influencing these various outcomes.”

But later in the paper, the authors temper this point:

“However, it is not true that all types of climatic events influence all forms of human conflict or that climatic conditions are the sole determinant of human conflict. The influence of climate is detectable across contexts, but we strongly emphasize that it is only one of many factors that contribute to conflict.”

And in the end, the big summary (my emphasis):

“The above evidence makes a prima facie case that future anthropogenic climate change could worsen conflict outcomes across the globe in comparison to a future with no climatic changes, given the large expected increase in global surface temperatures and the likely increase in variability of precipitation across many regions over coming decades”

Every bit of this is fine with me. Indeed, had the reporting on this paper been as nuanced as the claims it actually makes…there probably wouldn’t have been any reporting on the paper. The hook “the climate affects a lot of things, and some of those things could affect rates of conflict, so climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future” isn’t exactly exciting.

And this is where I have to critique the article. My critique has two sides, one intellectual and one from a policy perspective. They are closely linked and blend into one another, and so I present them both below.

Intellectually, I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here. Yes, there appear to be some new quantifications of the risk of conflict under different climate situations, and I will return to those in a minute. But overall, the claims made in this paper are exactly the claims that have been made by many others, in many other venues, for a while. For example, the Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation at USAID put out a report back in 2009 (yes, four years ago) that reviewed the existing literature on the subject and came to more or less the same conclusions as this “new” article.  So I was a little bothered by the Princeton press release for this paper in which quoted lead author Solomon Hsaing several times, because I think his justification for the paper is based on a straw man:

“We think that by collecting all the research together now, we’re pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict,” Hsiang said. “People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It’s more of the rule than the exception.

I’d love to know who the “people” are who think there is no relationship between climate conditions and human conflict. Critiques of the study of this connection (at least credible critiques) have not so much argued that there is no connection, but that the connections are very complex and not well-captured in large-scale studies using quantitative tools.  So, when Hsaing goes on to say:

“Whether there is a relationship between climate and conflict is not the question anymore. We now want to understand what’s causing it,” Hsiang said. “Once we understand what causes this correlation we can think about designing effective policies or institutions to manage or interrupt the link between climate and conflict.”

…he’s really making a rather grand claim for an article that just tells us what we already knew – that there is a connection between climate conditions and human conflict. And he is burying the real lede here…that the contribution we need, now, is to understand how these causal relationships come to be. This argument for “where we should go next” is also a bit grand, seeing as everyone from academics to USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation have been conducting detailed, qualitative studies of these relationships for some time now because we already knew a) that there were relationships between climate and conflict and b) we needed to establish what caused those relationships.

Second, I feel this article suffers from a critical methodological flaw, in that the authors never address the variable coupling of climate outcomes and changes in even those drivers of conflict identified in the literature. For example, it is not at all uncommon to have market shifts take place seasonally, in a manner that can be either coupled or uncoupled with shifts in climate: that is, sometimes a bad rainy season damages local harvests and drives market prices for food up, while other times it could be a great rainy season and a very productive harvest, but factors on regional or global markets could still generate price spikes that end up limiting people’s access to food. In both situations, the people in question would experience a food stress, one closely linked to climate variability, and the other experience a food stress uncoupled from climate. This is why, as I argued back during the Horn of Africa Famine, drought does not equal famine. Famines are far more highly correlated to market conditions than climate conditions. Sometimes climate events like a failed rainy season can trigger a famine by pushing markets and other factors over key thresholds. However, we’ve also had famines in times of normal or even favorable climatic conditions for agriculture.

Simply put, the authors appear to assume a constant relationship between a conflict driver like access to food and the local/regional/global climate. To be fair, this seems to be a pretty prevalent assumption in the literature.  But to the point, this is a bad bet. As best I can tell, the authors have not managed to address the intermittent coupling of conflict drivers like access to food and markets with climatic conditions in their analysis. This, to me, casts significant doubt on their findings that risk of inter-group conflict will rise 14% at one standard deviation of temperature rise – in short, this is far too precise a claim for a study with such large margins for error built into its design.  My suspicion here is that the margin of error introduced by this problem is probably larger than their analytical findings, rendering them somewhere between weak and meaningless. And this, to be honest, was the only really original contribution in the paper.

Third (as I begin to pivot from intellectual to policy critique), while the authors claim to have focused on causal relationships (a claim I think should be tempered by my methodological concerns above), they cannot explain those relationships. I’ve made this point before: in the social sciences, causality is not explanation. Even if we accept that the authors have indeed established causal relationships between climate variability and change and the risk of conflict/rates of conflict, they do not know exactly how these changes in climate actually create these outcomes. This is clear in the section of the paper titled “Plausible Mechanisms”, in which the authors conduct a review of the existing literature (much of which is qualitative) to lay out a set of potential pathways by which their observed relationships might be explained. But nothing in this study allows the authors to choose between any of these explanations…which means that all the authors have really accomplished here is to establish, by different means, exactly what the qualitative literature has known for a long time. To repeat:

  1. The climate affects many arenas, including food supplies, markets, and employment. The climate affects each of these in different ways in different places.
  2. Climate-related changes in one or more of those arenas could (but do not always) affect rates of conflict
  3. Even when climate-related changes to these arenas do provoke conflict, the provocation can occur in any number of locally-specific ways
  4. Therefore, all we can really say is that climate change might affect rates of conflict in different ways in different places in the future

We already knew all of this.

At this point, allow me to pivot fully to my fourth critique, which comes from a policy perspective. People tend to see me as an academic, and forget that I served as the first climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. I was Nancy Lindborg’s first climate advisor – indeed, it was in this role that I found myself first dealing with issues of conflict and climate change, as I was responsible both for briefing my Bureau’s leadership on these issues and guiding the programming of the Bureau’s dedicated climate change budget (some of which I directed into more research on this topic). In short, I do know something about policymaking and the policy environment. And what I know is this: this paper gives us nothing actionable to address. Even if I accept the finding of 14% greater risk of intergroup conflict at one standard deviation of temperature increase, what am I supposed to do about it? Without an explanation for how this temperature rise produces this greater risk, I have no means of targeting programs, diplomacy, or other resources to address the things that create this greater risk. In short, this paper tells me what I already knew (that climate variability and change can contribute to conflict risk) without giving me anything concrete I can work on. If I were still briefing Nancy, my summary of this paper would be:

  1. There is nothing new in this paper. Its key findings are those of CMM’s (four-year-old) report, and are already well-established in the literature
  2. The paper does not provide any new information about how climate change and variability might contribute to increased conflict risk, and therefore presents nothing new that might serve to guide future policy, programs, or diplomacy
  3. I have methodological concerns with the paper that lead me to believe that the rates of increased risk of conflict reported in this paper are likely stated with too much confidence. These rates of heightened risk should not be cited until put under significant scrutiny by the academic and policy community*.

In summary, the supportable parts of this paper are nothing new – it is a reasonable summary of the issues with establishing a connection between climate change and conflict, and a decent (if truncated) review of the existing literature on the subject (I’d suggest that a real review article of this subject would have to go wider and look at the conflict and environment literature more broadly). But it doesn’t say anything new that really bears up to scrutiny, and even if the “risk of conflict” figures are correct, the paper provides no information that might guide policy, programs, or diplomacy in a manner that could avoid such conflicts. For that information, we have to return to the qualitative research community, which has long espoused the same general findings as those in this paper.

The press releases from Princeton and Berkeley, and the more hyped of the media coverage we’ve seen around this paper (likely driven by those press releases) is much ado about nothing new.

 

 

*In my third point I am indeed taking issue with the peer review process that brought this paper to publication. I believe that Science wanted this paper for the same reason Nature wanted the last one: headlines. Let’s see how the findings here stand up to serious scrutiny.

Eric Cantor’s recent call to shift funding from the social sciences to the hard sciences (“Funds currently spent by the government on social science — including on politics of all things — would be better spent helping find cures to diseases”) reflects a profound misunderstanding of the complementary role these two epistemological arenas play.  John Sides has covered a range of reasons why the social sciences should not be seen as superfluous to needs, all centering on the fact that social phenomena are central to human well-being and happiness.  As he notes:

My problem with this laser focus on the hard sciences and on medicine is that it pretends that people’s quality of life simply depends on physical phenomena—how fast computers are or how much their knee hurts and so on.   That’s simply not true.  Much of people’s happiness—indeed, including whether they have access to computers or can endure a physical malady—depends on social phenomena.

Even more compelling is Mark Slouka’s 2009 article in Harpers, which offers one of the clearest defenses of the humanities I have ever read: simply put, without the humanities it is very difficult to be a functional citizen in a democracy (but in their absence it is very easy to produce a docile population of workers).

Let me take Slouka’s argument past what really read like something of an either/or tradeoff between the humanities and what he called “mathandscience” and toward a point of complementarity here: simply put, science is a way of seeing the world that enables particular understandings of that world. Science has facilitated spectacular changes in the way we live, from household technologies to medical advances.  But science is but one way of seeing the world, one that does not tell us what we should do, or what else we should do.  Those questions are the province of ethics, justice, and empathy. Science is poorly equipped to address any of these.

This is why science and technology require the social sciences and humanities. They help us separate what is possible in the world from what should be done in the world. Remember, history is littered with examples of highly rational, scientific projects that killed huge numbers of people in the name of a greater good or a logical goal (anyone remember the Soviet collectivization of agriculture under Stalin? How about the far less brutal, but still problematic ujamaa collectivization in Tanzania?). Without the arts, humanities, and social sciences, we are left with a tool (science) and no guidance about how to use it.  Further, the growing field of science and technology studies shows that the capacities of particular technologies, in and of themselves, tell us little about who will adopt them and why. Trevor Birkenholtz’s work in India, for example, demonstrates that farmers continue to use tubewells, even though they know that this practice contributes to groundwater depletion, because the use of tubewells is closely bound up in one’s identity as a good and prosperous farmer.  Without such insights, how can we work with farmers in this region to identify locally-appropriate alternative water-supply technologies?

Cantor, and those like him, live in an odd world where technologies and commodities are social goods unto themselves with universal and obvious value. Existing social scientific work already demonstrates this to be untrue. Defunding such work will not make his beliefs more true, it will just make it harder to make the world a better place with the scientific tools we have and will develop in the future.

A great deal has been written about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, so much that I considered remaining a reader and observer without offering comment.  But the Swartz case has me thinking again about access to academic research. Not one academic author of those articles was negatively impacted by Swartz’s act (downloading millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR with the intent of posting them online for free) – the more easily accessible the article, the more likely it is to be read and cited…and that is why we write articles.  It seems to me that most people don’t understand the fundamental absurdity of copyright in academic publishing.

I quote from one transfer-of-copyright document I recently had to sign:

In order to ensure both the widest dissemination and protection of material published in our journal, we ask Authors to transfer to [Journal Name] the rights of copyright in the articles they contribute. This enables our publisher, on behalf of [Journal Name] to ensure protection against infringement.

The whole point of publication is to get people to read and use my ideas – the very idea of infringement is pretty vague here.  I do not receive a cent for any academic article I publish, so infringement won’t affect my income. Anyone who plagiarizes me and gets caught will lose his or her career – I don’t need copyright for that. So there is no reason for me to sign this document. But what the document leaves vague is the fact this is not a voluntary transfer – the journal will not publish an article without such an agreement, and without publications the typical academic will have a pretty short career.  In short, the average academic is forced to sign away their rights to their work if they want to have a career (no publications means no tenure).  I don’t care about my rights, honestly, except when my work then ends up behind a paywall, downloadable at $30 a pop, nobody who needs to access it (i.e. colleagues in the Global South, or even colleagues at most development donors) can access it. Somebody is making a lot of money of my work and the work of my colleagues (see this article too), but it isn’t me.

However, there does seem to be an out here, at least for employees of state institutions, or those whose research is funded is funded under a federal contract.  From the same agreement I just quoted:

I hereby assign to [Journal Name] the copyright in the above specified manuscript (government authors not transferring copyright hereby assign a non-exclusive license to publish)… [my emphasis]

While I am sure this is not how it was intended when written (it is a clause to allow federal employees to publish publicly-funded research), I wonder if those of us either employed by a public entity, either directly or under a contract, can invoke that status to shift our copyright transfers into “non-exclusive licenses to publish.”  This would remove the copyright infringement argument used against Swartz, thus making it easier to pull articles from behind paywalls into the public sphere.  In short, we need to stop transferring copyright to for-profit entities any way we can…but this needs to happen in a manner that doesn’t blow up everyone’s careers.  Until the senior faculty in each discipline decide to intervene and shift emphasis to low cost, open-access journals, this could be a useful first step.  And low cost can be done – see Simon Batterbury’s comment about the Journal of Political Ecology on the post in the last hyperlink.

In short, academics need to step up and start resisting an academic publishing machine that makes serious money off of our job requirements, but provides little in return.  If we do so, perhaps we won’t need folks like Aaron Swartz to liberate our work – we can do it ourselves.