What role should academics play in public knowledge creation?

  • Hannah Waddilove
30 October, 2017

A seminar held at ODID on 27 October as part of the Re-engaging Truth series asked what role academics should play in public knowledge creation. Along with a growing pressure on academics to have ‘impact’, those conducting politically relevant social research are also motivated by a desire to make our research useful to audiences outside of the academy. In the context of skepticism towards ‘expert knowledge’, what roles can academics play? What roles, if any, should we play? And what are the opportunities and perhaps even the dangers of academics embracing a role within policymaking and advocacy spaces?

To begin, Danny Dorling urged us to take a step back and consider more critically the role of British universities in society, especially the effects that academic elitism has in shaping class-based distinctions. He noted that wider trends such as the commercialisation of universities through higher student fees has inflated the academic system and suggested that the academic research role of universities will therefore be eclipsed by its educational role. In making this point, Dorling challenged the assumption that all academics have a major role to play in affecting policy. Rather, he advocated for universities to re-orientate their role as one that serves the local communities in which their large, inaccessible buildings stand.

However, as Ceri Thomas argued, it is not simply a question for the universities of whether they should engage. In the UK context, universities are drawn into wider political debates played out in the media whether they like it or not, increasingly on Brexit and the politics of free speech. The often-combative relationship between academia and media is indicative of a mutual lack of understanding between academic and non-academic spheres. Anecdotally, he noted that focus groups showed a very low level of awareness that universities conducted research at all.

Annette Idler argued for the importance of publically-funded research interacting with policy spheres that seek out academic inputs. She made the distinction between research that happens to be ‘policy relevant’ and where one’s research design is too closely orientated around policy goals. Yet while those working on research relevant to policy should take the opportunity to engage, there are costs, especially where findings from contemporary research is used to justify political policy decisions.

The debate on ‘impact’, however, should not be limited to what one does with research findings. Ruth Mayne advocated the merits of co-designed research projects as a way to make research more tangible and relevant to people’s lives. However, she also warned of the time and resource-consuming cost of advocacy work and that this should only supplement not drive the work of an academic.

Expert knowledge can and should play a role informing debate in local communities, on media platforms and in policy deliberations. Academics should not play safe in elite discussions but challenge themselves and their institutions to come up with strategies for their expertise to reach outside of their walls.

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About the author(s)
Hannah Waddilove