Post-Brexit, we must make the case for scholarship, not just science…

Exit
Credit: Billy Frank

The vast majority of UK academics supported Remain.  The free movement of ideas and people is vital to what we do.  EU colleagues have brought expertise, students fresh perspectives, and, of course, the UK benefitted disproportionately from EU funding programmes.  Despite this near unanimity, there is a divide in UK academe that I fear Brexit will only sharpen.

Throughout the pre-referendum ferment and into the frankly frightening aftermath, I was one of many non-scientists who followed Scientists for EU.  It’s a great initiative – probably the most active and visible academic campaign.  Everyone knows (or at least says) science matters, right?  It’s easy for a campaigner on the doorstep, or a Minister on TV to talk the talk of celebrating UK science and the need to protect investment, if only as some kind of marker of international prestige when few others come to mind (whether they walk the walk is, of course, another thing…)

The problem is – and this is no criticism of Scientists for EU – that it’s not just science at stake here.  Of the ten most vulnerable subjects to EU research funding, six fall outside the STEM designation.  Beyond money, there’s an intellectual case too.  The lone scholar in the humanities is a prevalent but only a partial picture – and a potentially damaging one.  All disciplines thrive on collaboration and conversation, even if (and even when) our labour is often solitary.  Sustaining a meaningful, productive community of enquiry in the humanities means people meeting, talking, sharing, debating and generally pushing against the boundaries of what we think we know.  Scholarship is always a collective endeavour.  There is more we have in common within academe than divides us along disciplinary boundaries.

But leaving both those arguments aside, perhaps the most powerful case from a policy perspective for dealing with scholarship rather than just science is that, when it comes to solving problems, it’s the mix that matters.  In the UK, we’re just starting to think about how to deal with one of the most complex, divisive and unstable set of social, economic and political problems.  Whatever the toxic views that were peddled about experts in the lead-up to the referendum, we should surely be drawing on all the cognitive resources we can possibly access as we tackle its consequences.  That includes the humanities.  In my recent book, I argue that ‘policy is multi-dimensional, messy, uncertain, ambigious, shifting and contested because so too are the human beliefs, commitments, decisions and interactions at the core of the exercise of power.’  The humanities give us insights into and purchase on the inescapably human dimensions of life – including constitutional crises…

It worries me that in a context where STEM subjects are perceived as the only useful forms of knowledge, science becomes a proxy for the total research base as the impact of Brexit is evaluated and policy responses formulated.  There is an opportunity now for advocacy groups such as Scientists for EU to defend science not just in its own terms, but also as part of a broader collaborative effort to make the case for scholarship and evidence in the broadest sense (even if people in this country had indeed ‘had enough of experts‘ before the vote, they seem to be grasping for expertise now).  And it should be in scientists’ interests that the UK maintains a vibrant mix of intellectual activity.  Dynamic trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary work relies on active, sustainable, ambitious and confident disciplinary cultures.

This agenda also means historians, philosophers and linguists (i.e. all of us humanists) being willing to engage with greater commitment, and to take a platform in the way Scientists for EU have done.  My sense is we have much to learn from the ways they used social media to take an active role in public debate, including tweeting and vlogging on Facebook and Youtube.  We too need to be open to pressing not just for the value of our own fields, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of enquiry and expertise.

No policy issue is ever purely technical and no one discipline can ever produce all the answers.  As scholars, we need to see science, social science and the arts and humanities as complementary forms of knowledge rather than as competing in some zero-sum policy and funding game.  Advocacy groups have a core purpose in their own domain, but that shouldn’t preclude some timely and targeted joint efforts.  It’s both/and rather than either/or.  Surely now of all moments we should be making common cause?

Why would anyone not want to be a [insert your job]?

public-domain-images-eiffel-tower-construction-1800s-0004
Eiffel Tower construction from 1889 World’s Fair

‘I can’t believe that anyone would not want to be an engineer.  It’s baffling to me’ said Naomi Climer, the new President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology on The Life Scientific.  As the head of a guild (her term) she’s in advocacy mode, and rightly so.  Many of us share that sentiment.  We often have strong beliefs about the merits of our own profession (‘I feel the same about physics’ Jim Al-Khalili added) and its value and importance to life, the universe and everything. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s baffling for anyone else to want to do and be something different.

Does being a ‘serious’ engineer, historian or economist mean acquiring a kind of tunnel vision that only sees one’s own field and methods of enquiry?  I’m not suggesting for a moment that Climer was actually suggesting that engineering was the only profession worth pursuing, but it’s interesting that she reached for that turn of phrase to express commitment to and enthusiasm for her discipline.  It makes me think of Jacobs’ notion of ‘explanatory imperialism’ that it’s all too easy to fall into*.  It blinds us to the ways in which different forms of knowledge can combine to answer the complex questions of life, the universe and everything more productively, creatively, insightfully etc.

That’s why it’s important that historians do more than raise the ‘History Matters’ banner.  History does matter, and in all kinds of ways that are underexplored and underappreciated.  But my sense is that the ‘case for history’ will be most cogently and convincingly made by showing how historical modes of thought and ways of working interlock with those from other disciplines in the making of meaning.  We should be looking for complementarity not competition.  Collective puzzling can happen alongside individual scholarship.

History doesn’t matter more than literature or sociology or chemistry – it matters with, alongside and in conversation with them (and always has – history is always ‘history of…’, its eclecticism and reach are sources of strength).  I’d like to think we can all get beyond bafflement and develop boundary-crossing communities of enquiry that really appreciate the distinctive contributions of their members.  Engineers welcome.

* J. Jacobs, ‘Theory, practice, and specialization: The case for the humanities’ in Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 11, no, 3, pp. 206-223.

A Skeptical Note on Policy-Prescriptive Political Science

work shedJay Ulfelder’s recent ‘skeptical note’ on the ‘actionability’ of political science research makes some essential points about the problematic assumptions underpinning policy recommendations. In Britain, the Blairite manifesto pitch ‘what counts is what works’ subdues the complexities of research method that might, at best, conclude ‘what works here’ (with further caveats about target population and other central aspects of the design).
I’m not sure, however, that scholars of any discipline should therefore refrain from proposing recommendations or, even more cautiously, withdraw from offering expert advice.

One of the important problems Ulfelder identifies is the uncertainties that are involved in the space between research and policy. How can a scholar answer the ‘so what?’ question that follows from any finding?  There are two issues that we can unpack here.

The first is the inevitability, indeed, the necessity, of uncertainty. Policy is messy, unstable and contested because it involves human beings and their beliefs, habits, commitments, decisions and relationships – in the exercise of power, the exertion of influence, in policy implementation and debate. Instead of searching for the definitive research design to address all the assumptions about the transferability of findings – or indeed, just leaving it to ‘elected officials and bureaucrats’ to do the interpretation – we should be bringing together different disciplines with complementary insights. Given the uncertainties of anything involving human beings, the humanities need to be in there too, rather than ignored as irrelevant, if not ornamental.

The other issue is the ‘so what?’ question. I agree it’s hard for scholars to come up with policy recommendations, but that’s at least in part due to their lack of experience of policymaking in practice. In the UK, there is far less interchange between higher education and government than in the USA and the academic career is still pretty intolerant of periods spent in other settings, something that needs to change. Taking a look over the fence and trying to prescribe policy interventions based on research designed for academic purposes seems foolish at best, if not rather arrogant as well as misguided. Humanities scholars may be largely ignored, but we can often be too concerned to preserve our integrity by not allowing policy concerns to ‘sully’ our work.

This seems a rather self-defeating formula. Policymakers don’t get access to an ecosystem of expertise. Scholars remain on the far side of the fence lamenting the intellectual illiteracy of political rhetoric and decision-making.

But does it need to be this way? I don’t think so. But there’s no easy policy prescription for fixing it, as it involves major shifts in perspective among scholars – towards actively looking for cross-disciplinary approaches – and in policy communities that often have limited conceptions of ‘relevant’ evidence.

Being honest in response to a request for expert advice is not just about admitting the limits of one’s own expertise but also the limits of one’s own discipline. It’s the mix that matters, but it’s not easy for the expert to admit it.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

My sometimes-colleague Michael Horowitz wrote a great piece for War on the Rocks last week on what “policy relevance” means for political scientists who study international affairs, and the different forms that relevance can take. Among the dimensions of policy relevance he calls out is the idea of “policy actionability”:

Policy actionability refers to a recommendation that is possible to implement for the target of the recommendation. Most academic work is not policy actionable, fundamentally. For example, implications from international relations research are things such as whether countries with high male-to-female ratios are more likely to start military conflicts or that countries that acquire nuclear weapons become harder to coerce.

As Michael notes, most scholarship isn’t “actionable” in this way, and isn’t meant to be. In my experience, though, there is plenty of demand in Washington and elsewhere for policy-actionable research on international affairs, and there is a subset of scholars…

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‘It’s the mix that matters’: new journal article on history and expertise for policymaking

Contemporary British History

Really pleased to see that my new article has gone ‘live’: History as expertise and the influence of political culture on advice for policy since Fulton

Here’s the abstract:

The 1968 Fulton report made the case for reforming the civil service to meet the demands of modern government.  This article considers Fulton, and subsequent ‘failures’ to implement it, in the context of a changing political culture in Westminster that privileged political advice in policymaking and became ambivalent towards external expertise.  It explores whether the Fulton recommendation for the creation of policy planning units in government departments, staffed by a mix of outside experts and talented officials could be reimagined for present purposes, to include historians: history embedded in policymaking is proposed as an alternative to history presented to policymakers.

Keywords: government, policy advice, historians, public history, policymaking

***

Thanks must go to Prof. Ludmilla Jordanova, Prof. Owen Davies and Dr. Sarah Lloyd for their advice and support, and to the the anonymous reviewers for their careful and constructive comments.

‘It’s the mix that matters’ is borrowed from R. A. W. Rhodes, “The Governance Narrative: Key Findings and Lessons from the ESRC’s Whitehall Programme,” Public Administration 78, no. 2 (2000)

‘Science’ and ‘arts’: should we play in each other’s fields a bit more?

I find science and maths a real draw.  I often listen to The Life Scientific, Material World and More or Less podcasts ahead of more predictable favourites Making History, The Long View and History Today (though maybe not Friday Night Comedy…)

It was interesting to hear the recent  interview on TLS with Sunetra Gupta, novelist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, in which she refused to recognise a division between science and arts, only different ways to express ideas.

From this perspective, the early commitment of Hatfield Technical College to Liberal Studies seems ahead of its time.  All students were to have 10 per cent of teaching time allocated to subjects such as History, Economics, Politics, Geography and Modern Languages.  It was thought that educating the next generation of engineers and technologists in this balanced way would serve the national interest.  So it was rather fitting that C P Snow became the then Hatfield Polytechnic’s first Visitor in 1972.

The humanities have since come into their own as the institution broadened its scope and the model of reserving time for accessing another ‘culture’ did not survive.  Now it seems an unrealisable ideal – and student choice may be delivering a narrower range of experiences than was imposed in the 1950s.  Would we now be prepared to mandate that all students should take a module a year from different Schools or Departments?  What would be the demands on lecturers or the effects on the ‘home’ students?  What would be the implications for students’ grades?  Then again, if we did do it, what might be the returns?

While academics tend to have a strong sense of disciplinary identity, many of us also have an inclination for greater integration of different ways of expressing ideas.  And these may well currently be manifested only in podcast preferences.

But there is often more than unites than divides us.  I often find Alice Bell’s blog Through The Looking Glass setting off some mental sparks and work aligning scientific and historical method has proved hugely interesting and useful. The case for interdisciplinarity between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ in meeting some of the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change or an ageing society, is now being made in stronger terms. But how often do we actually bridge the divide? Or if we do, do we tend to contribute to the greater whole from our respective positions as specialists in our disciplines, rather than getting to ‘play in each other’s fields’?

Complementarity between disciplines 2: policy advice

In the domain of public policy advice, the case for an approach based on the complementarity of disciplines and professions should be a strong one.  Only very few policy problems lie within the domain of one community, as Macrae and Whittington emphasise in their work on Expert Advice for Policy Choice.  Cooperation and division of labour – involving reading each other’s literature, contributing jointly to technical debates and working together on projects – should be good practice in marshalling expertise, which can then be fed into an iterative process of formulating and assessing policy alternatives.

Economists, statisticians and social researchers have established specialist pathways in the civil service, suggesting that the range of professional inputs into policy development is rather limited.  Admittedly, it emerges that Macrae and Whittington have the quantitatively-oriented disciplines in mind, and so the structure would fit with their model in that sense.  However, the book does raise the question as to whether a broader and more genuinely interdisciplinary approach would be to the benefit of our public policy.

To give just one example, political mapping and scenario development would be greatly enhanced by a historical mindset.  In essence, they’re describing a version of Neustadt and May‘s “placement“: the development of a contextualised understanding of actors (both individuals and organisations) to enable their later positions and actions to be anticipated in a more informed and nuanced way.

There is much to be taken from the Macrae/Whittington book in terms of challenging the inclinations of the “basic disciplines” to regard “user” values and priorities as of less relevance or importance than those of their own communities.  The call for responsiveness and collaboration in addressing the questions posed by policymakers is well-made.  But there is much more to be done to convince not only policymakers, but also the specialist groups that currently have a privileged position with regards to policy advice, that historians have an important, complementary contribution to make.

Tackling belief is the key to overcoming climate change scepticism

Adam Corner’s great piece today on Guardian.co.uk (via @alicebell) highlights the importance of belief in determining people’s position on climate change.  For me, this opens up debate on a vital role for the humanities:

…we should not be looking to science to provide us with the answer to a problem that is social in nature. The challenge is to find a way of explaining why climate change matters using language and ideas that don’t alienate people. Simply repeating the scientific case for climate change is – unfortunately – not going to cut it.

In fact, the more we know, the less it seems that climate change scepticism has to do with climate science at all. Climate change provokes such visceral arguments because it allows ancient battles – about personal responsibility, state intervention, the regulation of industry, the distribution of resources and wealth, or the role of technologies in society – to be fought all over again.

The last sentence is particularly resonant :

It follows that the answer to overcoming climate change scepticism is to stop reiterating the science, and start engaging with what climate change scepticism is really about – competing visions of how people see the world, and what they want the future to be like.

Humanities and sciences: making common cause

In September, the first cohort of Master’s students in environmental sciences and humanities will be starting at the University of East Anglia.  According to Mike Hulme, Professor of climate change at UEA, the programme aims to ‘fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science’, based on the recognition that ‘science alone cannot motivate social change’.

In emphasising interdisciplinarity and orienting itself around a central theme, such an innovation in programme design is a natural development from research strategies that have come to be configured around ‘grand challenges’.  UCL have four such challenge areas: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.  Coventry identify 6 ‘challenges to change the world’: integrated transport and logistics, digital media, ageing community, low impact buildings, sustainable agriculture and food, and low carbon vehicles.  A quick Google search will reveal many other examples in the UK higher education sector and beyond.

It’s an intellectually exciting way of thinking about research and innovation.  It speaks well to audiences outside academe, including policymakers and politicians, and aligns with funding strategies that look for collaboration, cross-over and impact.

Responding to the grand challenges means bringing different discipline areas together.   Science, technology, engineering, design, psychology often have readily identifiable roles, but how far has the potential of the humanities been considered?  The recognition of the importance of people’s ‘stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet’ at the heart of the UEA programme is a welcome one, and suggests there is much as yet unrealised potential for integrating the humanities into how we approach the major issues of the modern world.

Low carbon pasts, low carbon futures is a project at the University of Hertfordshire that is looking to explore that potential.  This is what it’s about:

Climate change is a global issue by nature, but it is also a local one.  We may expect to be internationally connected – at least through the Internet and social media if not also through travel – but the quality of our lives is largely about the places in which we live and work.  We know that we need to find low carbon futures for those places, futures that combine economic health and social wellbeing.  But to do that, we need to start asking some different questions.  We need to ask about how communities actually work, bringing in the important insights of urbanism and place shaping.  And because credible responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation must involve changing human behaviour, we need to ask about how human beings interact with their places.  This means drawing on the rich evidence that history offers us of how we have shaped and re-shaped our material worlds, and our understandings of those worlds.  If we want to imagine low-carbon futures, we must first understand low-carbon pasts.

I set it up with Sarah Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in History, and Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, with whom I’m also presenting a paper, Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities, at the Heritage 2012 conference in Porto.  This work is at an early stage so we’d welcome ideas and discussion on the ways in which history can contribute to debates around sustainability but also more broadly on the potential for humanities to inform and help shape inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches to research, development, innovation – and teaching.

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.