What are academic researchers for?


I’m helping a University and some academic researchers think through how their areas of work can be more about being ‘for’ the particular areas of society they serve, than ‘about’.   Actively contributing rather than dispassionately observing.  Or, of course, ensuring that if dispassionately observing is their main contribution that they are dispassionately observing something that contributes something more than just an academic paper.

I find I can’t answer that question without being clearer about what a specific academic area is supposed to be for.  It’s easier then to consider how that positioning, those skills, resources and mindsets can be oriented more towards making a valued contribution.

I initially started this with the usual big question ‘What’s Academia for’, (enjoyed a useful article by Alain de Botton – What’s Academia for‘), but found that though both questions have common elements, actually it was more useful to look at it through the lens of individual research areas to start with and then look at the whole.

I would love to know your views, and any easily accessible materials.  (Ie, not long boring academic papers written using language I don’t understand!). Here are my starting points, and thanks to Helen Pallett and Roland Jackson on twitter for contributing to this list and Duncan Green from Oxfam for his enjoyable blogs on why academics can help NGOs

So an academic can contribute to society through:

  • Dispassionately observing phenomena?
  • Providing an independent or impartial view?
  • Delivering rigorous evidence?
  • Providing space for others to reflect on key issues?
  • Questioning things taken for granted?
  • Challenging assumptions?
  • Creating new technologies, products, services or systems?
  • Developing new ways of thinking or working?
  • Providing access to funding for important work with others?
  • Helping us understand ourselves better?
  • Helping shed light on how different perspectives or ways of thinking can help us as individuals or organisations more effective?

I know these are not all comparable, some are values others might be actions.  This is why I need help!

Any light you can shed on this for me would be most helpful.  I will write it up and hope it might ‘shed some light’ for us all on what RRI could deliver in practice.   And I don’t have to write a long academic paper – that’s the fun of not being an academic!



2 thoughts on “What are academic researchers for?

  1. Hi
    As comments on twitter quickly vanish… I once wrote something about scholarship, or rather reported on older research into the value of scholarship which might be of interest. And just replace scholarship by ‘academic research’ and ‘scholar’ by academic, if scholarship seems to old fashioned a word.
    This is based on a report entitled ‘Scholarship reconsidered‘Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate‘ – for hyperlinks please look here:

    “Ernest Leroy Boyer (1928 – 1995) was an American educator who served as Commissioner of Education. Throughout his life he fostered reforms in teaching and education and closer relationship between teaching and research. In this process he also redefined the concept of ‘scholarship’. Boyer “proposed that ‘scholarship’ should be seen as covering four types of activity within a modern and engaged university:

    The scholarship of discovery that includes original research that advances knowledge;

    The scholarship of integration that involves synthesis of information across disciplines, across topics within a discipline, or across time;

    The scholarship of application (also later called the scholarship of engagement) that goes beyond the service duties of a faculty member to those within or outside the University and involves the rigor and application of disciplinary expertise with results that can be shared with and/or evaluated by peers; and

    The scholarship of teaching and learning that the systematic study of teaching and learning processes. It differs from scholarly teaching in that it requires a format that will allow public sharing and the opportunity for application and evaluation by others.” (emphasis added)

    This model of ‘scholarship’ gives equal weight to the creation of knowledge, the integration of knowledge and the making sense of knowledge in context(s), the making use of knowledge in the wider world, with the wider world and for the wider world, and the interaction and transformation of knowledge through collaborative teaching and learning.

    The first and second types of scholarship can be said to ‘make public knowledge’ and the third and forth to ‘make knowledge public’. Both these wider activities are interrelated and can’t be carried out in isolation. There is however a tendency to pull these activities apart in the context of reorganising the (public) funding of teaching and research both in the US and the UK.”


  2. Ah, a nice provocative question for a Sunday morning :)

    There are, of course, plenty of well-worn answers to the question that can be parroted off (usually starting with the “self-evident” truth that academics are essential, then back-filling the “why” and “how”), but it’s a surprisingly tough question to answer with reflection and honesty.

    I typically think of my roles and my responsibilities as an academic as a generator and conveyor of knowledge and insights that have value to society (or more specific, parts of society) by enriching lives (opening up ways of seeing and understanding self, community and the world more generally that are life-enhancing), informing (providing information and insights that helps people make decisions and create “value” for themselves and their community), and educating (providing people with specific knowledge and expertise that they can use effectively).

    These roles may sound very one-way, but I also think they come with a great responsibility to listen to, engage with and learn from social constituents, so you (I) as an academic become a responsible partner within society who is contributing to social well-being and growth. I guess tis is part of the largely unwritten contract between academics and society.

    In a more practical note, here are three resources to kick things off, that might be useful:

    1. It’s worth looking at the eight design aspirations of ASU (https://newamericanuniversity.asu.edu/about/design-aspirations), which map out a framework for socially responsive and beneficial academic research and practice. I find this a very powerful framework for testing whether academic activities are socially useful, or merely self-indulgent.

    2. There’s also the idea of the honest broker that Roger Pielke Junior described – http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/publications/special/honest_broker/

    3. And although it’s academics talking to academics, it’s worth checking out this summary of a meeting at the University of Michigan on Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mm/

    These are just for starters…

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