Academic Adaptation and “The New Communications Climate” (Open the Echo Chamber blog)

Posted by Edward R. Carr (31 May 2011)

[Original post here].

Andrew Revkin has a post up on Dot Earth that suggests some ways of rethinking scientific engagement with the press and the public.  The post is something of a distillation of a more detailed piece in the WMO Bulletin.  Revkin was kind enough to solicit my comments on the piece, as I have appeared in Dot Earth before in an effort to deal with this issue as it applies to the IPCC, and this post is something of a distillation of my initial rapid response.

First, I liked the message of these two pieces a lot, especially the push for a more holistic engagement with the public through different forms of media, including the press.  As Revkin rightly states, we need to “recognize that the old model of drafting a press release and waiting for the phone to ring is not the path to efficacy and impact.” Someone please tell my university communications office.

A lot of the problem stems from our lack of engagement with professionals in the messaging and marketing world.  As I said to the very gracious Rajendra Pachauri in an email exchange back when we had the whole “don’t talk to the media” controversy:

I am in no way denigrating your [PR] efforts. I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.

I assume that a decent PR team would be thinking about multiple platforms of engagement, much as Revkin is suggesting.  However, despite the release of a new IPCC communications strategy, I’m not convinced that the IPCC (or much of the global change community more broadly) yet understands how desperately we need to engage with professionals on this front.  In some ways, there are probably good reasons for the lack of engagement with pros, or with the “new media.” For example, I’m not sure Twitter will help with managing climate change rumors/misinformation as it is released, if only because we are now too far behind the curve – things are so politicized that it is too late for “rapid response” to misinformation. I wish we’d been on this twenty years ago, though . . .

But this “behind the curve” mentality does not explain our lack of engagement.  Instead, I think there are a few other things lurking here.  For example, there is the issue of institutional politics. I love the idea of using new media/information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) to gather and communicate information, but perhaps not in the ways Revkin suggests.  I have a section later inDelivering Development that outlines how, using existing mobile tech in the developing world, we could both get better information about what is happening to the global poor (the point of my book is that, as I think I demonstrate in great detail, we actually have a very weak handle on what is going on in most parts of the developing world) and could empower the poor to take charge of efforts to address the various challenges, environmental, economic, political and social, that they face every day.  It seems to me, though, that the latter outcome is a terrifying prospect for some in development organizations, as this would create a much more even playing field of information that might force these organizations to negotiate with and take seriously the demands of the people with whom they are working.  Thus, I think we get a sort of ambiguity about ICT4D in development practice, where we seem thrilled by its potential, yet continue to ignore it in our actual programming.  This is not a technical problem – after all, we have the tech, and if we want to do this, we can – it is a problem of institutional politics.  I did not wade into a detailed description of the network I envision in the book because I meant to present it as a political challenge to a continued reticence on the part of many development organizations and practitioners to really engage the global poor (as opposed to tell them what they need and dump it on them).  But my colleagues and I have a detailed proposal for just such a network . . . and I think we will make it real one day.

Another, perhaps more significant barrier to major institutional shifts with regard to outreach is the a chicken-and-egg situation of limited budgets and a dominant academic culture that does not understand media/public engagement or politics very well and sees no incentive for engagement.  Revkin nicely hits on the funding problem as he moves past simply beating up on old-school models of public engagement:

As the IPCC prepares its Fifth Assessment Report, it does so with what, to my eye, appears to be an utterly inadequate budget for communicating its findings and responding in an agile way to nonstop public scrutiny facilitated by the Internet.

However, as much as I agree with this point (and I really, really agree), the problem here is not funding unto itself – it is the way in which a lack of funding erases an opportunity for cultural change that could have a positive feedback effect on the IPCC, global assessments, and academia more generally that radically alters all three. The bulk of climate science, as well as social impact studies, come from academia – which has a very particular culture of rewards.  Virtually nobody in academia is trained to understand that they can get rewarded for being a public intellectual, for making one’s work accessible to a wide community – and if I am really honest, there are many places that actively discourage this engagement.  But there is a culture change afoot in academia, at least among some of us, that could be leveraged right now – and this is where funding could trigger a positive feedback loop.

Funding matters because once you get a real outreach program going, productive public engagement would result in significant personal, intellectual and financial benefits for the participants that I believe could result in very rapid culture change.  My twitter account has done more for the readership of my blog, and for my awareness of the concerns and conversations of the non-academic development world, than anything I have ever done before – this has been a remarkable personal and intellectual benefit of public engagement for me.  As universities continue to retrench, faculty find themselves ever-more vulnerable to downsizing, temporary appointments, and a staggering increase in administrative workload (lots of tasks distributed among fewer and fewer full-time faculty).  I fully expect that without some sort of serious reversal soon, I will retire thirty-odd years hence as an interesting and very rare historical artifact – a professor with tenure.  Given these pressures, I have been arguing to my colleagues that we must engage with the public and with the media to build constituencies for what we do beyond our academic communities.  My book and my blog are efforts to do just this – to become known beyond the academy such that I, as a public intellectual, have leverage over my university, and not the other way around.  And I say this as someone who has been very successful in the traditional academic model.  I recognize that my life will need to be lived on two tracks now – public and academic – if I really want to help create some of the changes in the world that I see as necessary.

But this is a path I started down on my own, for my own idiosyncratic reasons – to trigger a wider change, we cannot assume that my academic colleagues will easily shed the value systems in which they were intellectually raised, and to which they have been held for many, many years.  Without funding to get outreach going, and demonstrate to this community that changing our model is not only worthwhile, but enormously valuable, I fear that such change will come far more slowly than the financial bulldozers knocking on the doors of universities and colleges across the country.  If the IPCC could get such an effort going, demonstrate how public outreach improved the reach of its results, enhanced the visibility and engagement of its participants, and created a path toward the progressive politics necessary to address the challenge of climate change, it would be a powerful example for other assessments.  Further, the participants in these assessments would return to their campuses with evidence for the efficacy and importance of such engagement . . . and many of these participants are senior members of their faculties, in a position to midwife major cultural changes in their institutions.

All this said, this culture change will not be birthed without significant pains.  Some faculty and members of these assessments will want nothing to do with the murky world of politics, and prefer to continue operating under the illusion that they just produce data and have no responsibility for how it is used.  And certainly the assessments will fear “politicization” . . . to which I respond “too late.”  The question is not if the findings of an assessment will be politicized, but whether or not those who best understand those findings will engage in these very consequential debates and argue for what they feel is the most rigorous interpretation of the data at hand.  Failure to do so strikes me as dereliction of duty.  On the other hand, just as faculty might come to see why public engagement is important for their careers and the work they do, universities will be gripped with contradictory impulses – a publicly-engaged faculty will serve as a great justification for faculty salaries, increased state appropriations, new facilities, etc.  Then again, nobody likes to empower the labor, as it were . . .

In short, in thinking about public engagement and the IPCC, Revkin is dredging up a major issue related to all global assessments, and indeed the practices of academia.  I think there is opportunity here – and I feel like we must seize this opportunity.  We can either guide a process of change to a productive end, or ride change driven by others wherever it might take us.  I prefer the former.