Being professional about ‘impact’

Every now and again I see someone argue that the models for public engagement and impact built for natural sciences are all very well, but can’t possibly apply to us in the social sciences or humanities.

Whilst I have some sympathy, some of this amounts to sticking slightly snobby scholarly fingers in pairs of already too-deaf ears and going ‘yada yada yada, I can’t hear you’ at political realities knocking on the doors of lovingly constructed ivory towers.

Ideas of public engagement and impact are, in themselves, not a bad thing. I’m all for cynicism about particular definitions of these terms sometimes offered to us (cough – Big Society fuss – cough). But we should take these offerings fairly too, and accept that organizations like the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement are there to help us be better academics.

The scientific community woke up to demonstrate their worth around the mid 1980s. They then started a long and painful process of realising that they can’t simply shout ‘BUT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO ME I AM VERY CLEVER’ (and ‘while you’re at it, leave me alone to get on with my work in peace’), gradually realising they needed to get imaginative about explaining not only their work, but themselves. Moreover, they realized that they need to listen to the public too. This doesn’t necessarily amount to being told what to study, it just means listening (this might be useful as background). It may seem like an imposition, but those who bother are reaping the benefits.

Of course, you could study whatever you want to, in exactly the way you choose, and only bother to have the cosiest of chats about it. You can do that in your spare time. Want independence? Go, join the hobbyists. Me, I’m a public sector professional, and as such, I take pride in the ways in which I may cultivate an independent voice, but do so within a network of constraints provided by public service. Listening to outside voices is not a threat to my professionalism; it’s an expression of it.

I don’t want to sound entirely unsympathetic, and I admit I’m being deliberately provocative. I know many people in the social sciences aren’t nearly so blinkered. I also know from personal experience than communicating our scholarship can be bloody difficult. Yeah, everyone loves a nice historical story – a little ‘factette’ about Newton inventing the catflap for example – but what about the more complex offerings from professional historical research, the less convenient ideas, the less appealing detail?

A scientist friend puts a fart joke in his explanation of methane and get congratulated for being so down to earth. I seethe with envy. Part of my research involves unraveling the cultures and politics of fart jokes in popular science. When I try to explain this work, I sound like a spoilsport.

Most people feel uncomfortable talking about the abstract entities of science. Traditionally scientists have seen this as their great challenge, but in some ways they have it easy. Everyone’s got an opinion on the research objects of social sciences and humanities, and this is precisely what makes sharing our expertise so hard. But we shouldn’t lose sense of how it can be an advantage. We should listen to all these opinions, and then work out how to challenge them, how we can offer something more. We have these opinions for a living, we have taken time to have a proper look and a good, deep think about it. What new stuff have we dug up? Moreover, as someone who worries about these issues for a living, surely we want to have our ideas and evidence extended, our assumptions poked at, our ideas used?

We are paid to do our research. Teaching a small set of kids privileged enough to go to university, or publishing in esoteric journals only a couple of people will read does not cut it. Moreover, it doesn’t challenge our ideas enough to make the sort of high quality work we should be producing. Earn public trust by showing off your worth. You may well learn something in the process too.

You don’t have to do what you are told, what’d be the point of you if you did? But for goodness sake take those bloody fingers out of your ears. Me, I’m a professional scholar, not a hobbyist. That’s why I try to stretch my work outside of the academy, and why I think you should too.

Alice Bell

Senior Teaching Fellow, Science Communication, Imperial College London. Part-time Science Writer. I have degrees in the History of Science and Sociology of Education and did a PhD looking at children's science media.

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less critical person
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less critical person

Hi Alice,

Out of interest, who asked you to write the article?

alice bell
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alice bell

Ah, just the socialsci website asked for something on engagement – they didn’t ask me to write a particular argument or anything.

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[…] Bell suggests that social scientists and humanists need to think more carefully about public engagement: Of course, you could study whatever you want to, in exactly the way you choose, and only bother to […]

A scientist
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A scientist

I enjoy my science engagement activities too and would like to be see more, but, to be honest, I can’t make much sense of this text. If this is meant to convince other scientists, then you need less waffling and more solid evidence, especially when you promise to be “professional”.

I was so annoyed that I actually sent this text through the Blablameter:. The result was:

“Bullshit Index :0.3. Your text shows indications of ‘bullshit’-English. It’s still ok for PR or advertising purposes, but more critical audiences may be skeptical.”

Ciarán Mc Mahon
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Ciarán Mc Mahon

Every time I read an article which includes a phrase like “Every now and again I see someone argue that…” without providing a link or citation, I stop reading.