It’s Time to Leave the Ivory Tower

Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences; a very striking feature of the city where the conference was held. The architecture is stunning, but public engagement with science requires more than expensive buildings.

Last week, I attended an early career researcher conference in Valencia, Spain. As an historian, I was a bit of an odd duck in a conference fairly dominated by more quantitative methods, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today, I want to address a much more pertinent issue that came up in a roundtable discussion. The roundtable featured four speakers from academia, industry, policy, and politics, who discussed the relationship between our academic discipline and the real world of innovation and innovation policy that exists in business, policy, and politics.

The discussion started out pretty tame. The representatives from the academic, business, and policy spheres each had interesting things to say. To me, the most obvious theme to all their talks was that academics in innovation studies are still in a bit of an ivory tower. There are, apparently very few ways for academic ideas to find their way into business or policy practices. People working in business or policy rarely read academic journals, and while some of these people may have postgraduate training, the theoretical knowledge gained from this is not always relevant to their day-to-day work.

These ideas however, they were somewhat overshadowed by the speech delivered by David Hammerstein, a Green Party activist who was invited to represent the political sphere. Hammerstein wasn’t kidding when he warned that his talk would be a little bit confrontational. His speech aggressively criticized what he perceives as the blindness of scientists and other researchers to their social context, and used some very choice words to describe some of his least favourite research policies. Among his targets were the European Union’s experimental fusion reactor, and the common practice of private companies to turn the findings of publicly funded research into proprietary corporate secrets. The general thrust of his talk was that scientific and technological research needs to be better attuned to matters of genuine public interest, and that we PhD students need to promote public debate about scientific and technological issues.

I think that Hammerstein had a point. The social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental influence of scientific and technological research today is massive. And yet far too often, scientists and engineers are assumed to function in a sterile, apolitical world where they are servants only to objective natural truths and (maybe) economic incentives. It will not do for either the public or the scientists themselves to go on believing this. Science and technology are as political as anything else, not least because scientists and engineers are human beings with political opinions. As long as new technologies have the potential to bring about radical social changes, the public will have a stake in what kind of research is done, and how it is applied.

There are a few promising developments which might help the public realize that stake. Crowdfunding of both technology and science are fairly promising, as is the precendent set by Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Penny4NASA campaign”. But for the public to constructively engage with science and technology, they need to be able to critically evaluate science and technology. The good news here is that this critical engagement has been going on since at least the 1960s in at least three academic fields. History of Science and Technology has a tradition of considering scientific and technological achievements in light of their social context, Science and Technology Studies critically considers the links between science, technology and society and Innovation Studies attempts to describe the circumstances under which new technologies and practices are created. The bad news is that the public remains mostly ignorant about all three of these disciplines. It isn’t enough for a handful of academics to be discussing these things at conferences. The material complexity of the modern world demands that the public engage with these ideas as well.

And so I believe that it’s time for scholars in all three fields to start popularizing their work. In the fifty-odd years since their creation, all three of these disciplines have matured considerably and have made some impressive findings. The time is now ripe to diffuse that work more publicly. We need televised documentaries about the history of science and technology that explicitly link scientific and technological developments to their social contexts, rather than depicting great men of science. We need scholars active in science and technology studies to start writing science fiction which incorporates their ideas. We need innovation theorists to get involved in the discussion every time a politician tries to use words like “innovation” or “excellence” in soundbytes. And we need to bring all this research to bear on crucial societal problems such as climate change and medical research.

This is much easier said than done. If, as the roundtable pointed out, academic ideas have so little traction in policy and business, then the task of popularizing them among lay audiences will be extremely difficult. It will take some very clever people to take the arcane, academic jargon of these three fields and translate it into something that will interest the public. But the task is absolutely essential. If we are going to have more informed debates about scientific issues such as climate change and vaccination, or about technological ones such as pharmaceutical development and fusion power, then we need to make academic research about these things accessible to the public. Hopefully this blog can be a small part of that effort.

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