Politics of Poverty

Kristof’s call to academia: Do we choose relevance, or integrity?

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Do academics have the incentives to embrace social media and engage in today's policy debates? Photo: http://bit.ly/1kjtiUk

Knowledge production is political. The space for policy-making is never politically neutral.

Kimberly Pfeifer is the Head of Research at Oxfam America.

I was having an existential crisis. It was the year 1999 and I was preparing to defend my dissertation. Looking ahead to a career in research, I was preparing to teach students about politics and political relevance without having experienced any political relevance myself. I bailed.

I decided to look for a research job outside the walls of the academy. After all, who was going to translate all that great arcane research into practical use? I quickly found a job with the AFL-CIO in their Center for Strategic Research, and eventually made my way to Oxfam.

Fast forward to today. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof makes a bold claim that academics are largely not engaged in or relevant to the great policy debates. He accuses the academy of self-marginalization through wrong-headed incentives for professors—especially the ‘publish or perish’ imperative to achieve tenure.

After a decade forging collaborations with academics to produce top-notch research and analysis to back Oxfam’s advocacy and campaigning in the great debates, I am sympathetic to Kristof’s perspective. It’s challenging to find academics who can speak to the policy debates happening in Washington, DC. To pile on with Kristof:

  1. Even economics, which he cites as more relevant, relies too much on theoretical models, and failed to predict and prevent a global financial crisis and recent food price spikes.
  2. Too many academics are narcissists of minor difference–on both ends of the quantitative-qualitative spectrum. Do we really need rational choice political economists to critique the post-structural argument of the political economy solely on the basis of its language. (A spectacle I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing!)
  3. It is too costly to access and understand most academic arguments. Knowledge is power and the academy is reinforcing that power costs. Setting aside language issues, the prohibitive costs of accessing the majority of academic journals housing research findings contribute to construction of the ivory tower that walls-in the academy.

But I still say to Kristof, let’s cut our academic friends a break. (As does Christine Cheng, Josh Marshal, and Marc Bellemare.) He berates them for not embracing social media, but fails to distinguish “noise” and “information” from “scientific knowledge”, which takes time and systematic enquiry, and must be written-up fully for reasons of transparency, rigor, and replicability.

Knowledge production is political. The space for policy-making is never politically neutral. Belief systems set the terms of policy debate and discourse, and often determine “relevance.” What Kristof neglects to mention is that those producing seemingly “irrelevant” research under different paradigms may actually shift those paradigms precisely because they sit outside the mainstream discussion. Academics seeking to shape political debate live in a high-risk, high reward space that professional commentators don’t occupy.

To help them actually achieve the rewards of political relevance, the academy could do the following:

  1. Emphasize and prioritize strategic partnerships and collaborations with other institutional actors to ensure research is relevant to contemporary social problems.
  2. Maintain the integrity of peer-reviewed research and make it a public good. At the moment it is not, which creates an inequality in the access to information. While the Internet has no doubt improved this access, it has not cracked the nut Kristof focuses on—the peer reviewed journal. If the knowledge of the academy is publicly accessible, then the translators like Kristof will more likely flock there.
  3. The academy should embrace Kristof’s call to change its incentive structure for the dissemination of knowledge. Less emphasis should be placed on the volume of peer-reviewed publications, and more on the demonstrated relevance of ideas. Today’s communications technologies allow us to better understand, document and measure the political relevance of research. The academy should value the proven quality of ideas, not the quantity of words.

Derailing from the academic track has been good to me. In our finest moments at Oxfam, my work occupies the best of both worlds—political relevance grounded in rigorous research. And in those not so perfect moments, I at least have the grounding to fight to protect the integrity of our work, relying on the collaborations with our academic friends.

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