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The challenges of being a public policy professor and a public intellectual

Ever since I began my PhD, I realized that my work was supposed to have policy implications. I am lucky to have had a PhD supervisor whose philosophy was to train students who wouldn’t dare to make claims without empirical support. Who would be interested in solving analytical puzzles with an interdisciplinary tool-kit. Who would be focused on asking policy-relevant research questions. Who would create theoretically-informed, empirically-sound, analytically-robust research designs. In my view, my dissertation was always meant to have a public impact.

At the same time, I have always thought that part of my duty is to be a source of wisdom for public policy-makers. I believe that my research is supposed to be publicly available, widely-disseminated and policy-relevant. I’ve always believed that I should engage in what some people call public intellectualism. As Craig Calhoun aptly said, a few years ago: “Public engagement was a strong feature of the social sciences from their birth”. In fact, the discipline that I’ve called home (Political Science) for the past decade or so, has been seen as having a duty to contribute to the public sphere (read these interesting essays from a collection organized by the Social Science Research Council of the United States).

The mere concept of public intellectual and the heated discussions around it fascinate me. What exactly is a public intellectual? An academic who advises policy-makers on a regular basis? A professor who publishes opinion editorials every week? A scholar who appears on TV? Or someone like me, a professor who has a social media presence (read this interview by Melonie Fullick about my use of social media in academia)? I do not claim to be a public intellectual (I loathe self-aggrandizing, so much so that I’ve criticized the mere notion of calling oneself an expert), but I do believe that my duty is to communicate my research to the broadest audience possible and to ensure that it is used to design robust policy options to improve societal welfare.

Public intellectuals face a number of challenges, however. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I probably wouldn’t want to be a public intellectual. As Melonie Fullick aptly indicates in her piece for University Affairs,

It’s because once you’ve been labelled, there’s no winning: you can’t self-identify as a “public intellectual”, or you’re automatically either shot down, accused of “failure” to achieve unwieldy political goals, or simply assumed unworthy of the title.

Something like this happened to Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, tenured and full professor at Tulane University, and someone whose work as a public intellectual I really like. Harris-Perry also leads a TV show, and she has been touted as America’s foremost public intellectual by Ta-Nehisi Coates, praise that was quickly debated and in some cases, blatantly shut-down). I think the biggest challenge to someone with such a large public profile is that, with visibility comes an unavoidable cost, which may include losing your credibility as a scholar.

Interestingly enough, a recent proposal by the International Studies Association (ISA) to ban journal editors from blogging (full disclosure: I sit on the Executive Committee of ISA’s Environmental Studies Section), coupled with the debate around Harris-Perry’s public intellectual status also led me to ponder on the hindrances of being public, having an online presence, and sharing my thoughts and research to a larger audience. I would like to think that many political scientists and public policy scholars would like their work to be publicly discussed, widely available and to have policy impact. But as Richard French reminds us on his article in The Political Quarterly “The Professors in Public Life” (French 2012, p. 538),

Limitations of time, information, and analytical capacity require fast and frugal forms of rationality which sacrifice any pretence to optimisation. The ability to use these forms of rationality in a given domain distinguishes neophytes, and journeymen from experts. Experts perceive and select information from the environment more efficiently and faster than others; they recognize patterns or similarities from situation to situation; they resort to conscious analysis only rarely; they perceive problems and courses of action as parts of a single intuition. It takes unique gifts to adapt this form of expertise successfully over time to the inexhaustible variety of ‘wicked’ ‘messy’ problems which public life unfailingly presents to politicians, under the constant pressure of publicity and competition.

How I read French in the paragraph above is that we (academics) can have the gift of analysis, but it is hard to make sure that politicians absorb this knowledge and make good use of it to inform their policy decisions. French makes an excellent analytical summary of the challenges that professors face in wanting their research to inform public life. As French indicates, competition, publicity and uncertainty are three cardinal facts of public life, and how these factors influence politicians’ decision-making is relevant to any scholar wanting to have their views heard. To the extent that academics are able to successfully understand these challenges and frame their work in such a way that it can support robust decision-making, they will also be (in my view) making headway towards becoming successful public intellectuals.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. On the challenges of public engagement for marginalized academic voices – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on February 18, 2014

    [...] and “engage”. Even before he wrote his piece, I had already written about why it’s challenging for a public policy professor like me to engage as a “public intell… (do note the quotation marks, as I think that label is somewhat self-aggrandizing). Plenty of my [...]

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