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?

Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future

I first pitched my forthcoming book, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government as a full-length monograph in the standard post-PhD manner.It was Jen McCall (now Global Head of Humanities, Scholarly Division and Publisher, Theatre & Performance at Palgrave Macmillan) who suggested I rework the proposal as a Pivot.  Having resolved initial (and unfounded) anxieties about REF-ability and appeal for the job market, I took on the challenge.

Jen’s discussion of the Pivot format, reblogged here, explains Palgrave’s rationale for the short-form monograph.  I would certainly agree about the benefits of a fast, efficient process for getting timely scholarship ‘out there’.  For me, however, three other reasons have come to the fore and may be worth considering for other authors.

Introducing chapter abstracts clearly identifies the composite parts of your broader research.  Each abstract is another chance to reach potential readers, who may not otherwise have seen the relevance of your book to their interests from the title or a cursory look at the jacket.  For me this was important as the book doesn’t sit neatly in a particular historical specialism, but occupies a space at the intersection of political history, historiography, policy and government, sociology and organisation studies (with a smattering of anthropology, philosophy and even astrophysics!).  If a few political scientists venture in on seeing there’s a chapter on the policy process, then I’ll consider that a win.  The chapter abstracts make that more likely.

The e-book format is also attractive, and not just for the price (£35.99, significantly less than many monographs).  It also ensures that the book can ‘travel’, available in a range of countries without the need for appointed distributors.  The United States and Canada were important markets for me, with institutional historians employed in federal and state government and a debate about the connection between public policy and public history that is due a revival.  The option of immediate download makes sharing and discussing scholarly content on a global basis as easy as it has become for other types of writing.

My book’s at the top end, size-wise, of what’s possible for a Pivot.  The manuscript came in only just under 50,000 words, but having an absolute word limit is a helpful discipline.  Don’t see it as a standard book stripped down (a ‘monograph minus’), but almost as a genre in its own right.  You have to think carefully about structure and make hard decisions about content, but I think this helps rather than hinders (admittedly I did have a little last-minute editing to do to sneak under the barrier).  Maybe it’s that it focuses your mind on your key audiences and what they need to know, consider and understand in order to follow your argument.  But it also gives you a certain license. It’s a format that probably lends itself to work that takes a line, that aims to provoke, encourage debate, set out a new field of enquiry or reframe a problem.

It’s too early to know if the format will work for me – I guess I’ll know soon enough.  But I would encourage authors to consider it – it might just shake up our preconceptions of what academic publishing ‘should’ look like, and why and for whom we write.

Source: Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future

Public philosophy 2: experts and climate change

Once we accept the expert authority of climate science, we have no basis for supporting the minority position.

So argues Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, in ‘The Stone’, a forum within the New York Times Opinionator section for contemporary philosophy ‘on issues both timely and timeless’.  In essence, he’s doing some public philosophy, applying ‘critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.’

His position is based on the ‘logic of appeals to the authority of experts’.  If we accept who the experts are on a particular topic, and that our own status as non-experts excludes us from adjudicating disputes among said experts, then we must also recognise that we have no basis for rejecting the truth of any claim that is backed by a strong consensus within that community.

In the case of climate change, neither the existence of an expert academic field of climate science nor that of a strong consensus that human activities are causing the planet to warm can be challenged.  So, argues Gutting, the only way a non-expert can legitimately challenge climate change is by proposing that climate science ‘lacks the scientific status needed to be taken seriously in our debates about public policy’.  In passing, he notes that such a critique – though unlikely to find much traction in the case of climate science – may well prove more promising for ‘various sub-disciplines of the social sciences’.

Let’s say we accept this, but we then arrive at a problem.  How does expert knowledge translate into policy?  What is its role?  As Gutting acknowledges, scientific conclusions don’t have absolute authority in democratic debates, though his reasoning is based on logic rather than questions of accountability, that is, the fact of global warming is exists separate from and therefore doesn’t imply any particular policy response to that fact.

This is a sequential model – the experts generate consensus then effectively turn the body of knowledge over to ‘us’ to make the value judgements their science cannot and formulate policy accordingly.  I’m not sure even in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences that it works like this, but even if it does, the process of policymaking is itself one that calls for forms of expertise.  Returning to climate change, the importance of people’s behaviour, their beliefs, practices and ways of making meaning of their lives, is being increasingly discussed.  Once we get into the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines with much to offer in this dimension, we get into highly contested debates, we lose the consensus to which Gutting refers.

But rather than seeing this as a problem (where a perceived lack of scientific status leads to a lesser status in policy debates), can we instead recognise a process to which these forms of expertise have distinctive and important contributions to make?  Can the lack of consensus be productive?  Policymaking involves reconciling interests, beliefs and evidence that sometimes overlap, sometimes conflict.  It involves holding in mind at the same time different levels of human organisation and considering how those levels interact, how policy might affect that interaction.  It’s conditioned by institutions, with all their complexity of structures and relationships.  It’s many other things besides, but as a process it could surely benefit from forms of expertise that fundamentally engage with those kind of issues.  A sequential model has its attractions, but the role of expertise in policymaking isn’t that simple, because policymaking isn’t simple.  Question is, can the humanities and social sciences turn complexity and lack of consensus into a strength?

The Public Philosopher comes to town

The Public Philosopher starts on Radio 4 tomorrow, the tagline being: ‘Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel questions the thinking underlying a current controversy’.  Change ‘thinking’ for ‘history’ – or even just add ‘historical’ – and you have the pitch for The Public Historian.  But would it ever happen?

Radio 4 listeners clearly like their history and historical perspectives, explicit and implicit, are to be found everywhere (for example, the amazing interview with Konstanty Gebert in One to One on the underground press in Poland, in which he discussed comparisons with journalists in Arab spring countries, or Chris Stringer’s highly engaging recollections on The Life Scientific).  So audience interest probably wouldn’t be an issue.  But what about the academic side of things?  Would historians be keen to take on the mantle of The Public Historian, even if the intention was no more radical than to ‘look for the past behind the present’ (the tagline of The Long View)?  Or is the term ‘public history’ too contested, too misunderstood, too elusive or even too restrictive in this country?

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.