Towards a new kind of academia

In the last week or so, I’ve done a couple of talks about how we can do academia differently; firstly at the Zuckerman Symposium at UEA to celebrate 50 years of the School of Environmental Sciences, and secondly at a policy event with POST at Kingston University. My school of Environmental Sciences at UEA was the pioneer in its field back in Zuckerman’s day so it’s fitting that I should be part of a department that may once again be part of forging a new kind of academia. My department is great for impact, but I’m going to challenge it to break out of the academic mould and to prioritise this above publication in journals. REF reform will help (see below). My talk at Kingston was described as provocative – good, change doesn’t occur without ruffling a few feathers! I’ve had some interesting discussions on Twitter afterwards too with other visionaries who want to change academia for the better (thanks Niki Rust, Dani Rabaiotti et al.). Some people are leaving academia because they feel they can make a bigger impact elsewhere – we need to stop this! I was heartened by the comments from audience members at Kingston though – there is much support out there for revolution!


So what’s wrong with academia at the moment? Well in my view, quite a lot, although it must be said that there are fine examples of innovations being conducted across the country as we strive to make more of an impact on policy and practice. My own department at UEA is great on impact! Indeed, I would be quite wrong again if I left readers with the impression that academia makes no contribution to society – in fact, it makes an enormous difference. Look around us; those innovations, medical breakthroughs etc. have changed our lives.

But, are we doing enough to ensure that all of our academic research makes an impact on policy (notwithstanding that not all research strives to do so)? Well, if the findings of our report on the use of research in the UK Parliament are anything to go by, then no. Academic research was criticised by people in Parliament for being difficult to access, hard to understand, irrelevant to the pressing issues of the day, not concise, and for failing to provide an overview of the body of evidence. And academics were criticised for not engaging well with Parliament, in other words failing to send research to be used in parliamentary debate and scrutiny. People in Parliament are calling out for concise summaries of ‘what works’, but we are tending not to provide it.

In summary, we are not engaging well, nor are we providing what policy-makers want. Take this analogy.

Many years ago I tackled my Methodist Minister after the service about their sermon; tackled verbally I may add! My family were very embarrassed about this, but I have long had a reputation for saying things that need to be said. I tend to be very good at launching metaphorical grenades into the fray, which is good, because you can’t change paradigms without offending people. The subject of his sermon touched on why congregations were dwindling and why young people weren’t coming to Church. So, I asked what the Minister intended to do about it? Why not take the message to where the young people are, in the shopping centres, in people’s homes, in the pubs, at the sports stadiums? Why not invite different types of music into the Church to improve the experience? No, no, no came the replies – apparently that’s not what the Church is. So their approach to boosting the number of young people rested on them doing exactly the same thing that they’d been doing for years, which is exactly the reason why no one was coming. Sound familiar?

I think the same is true of some aspects of academia. We often seem to wonder why few people are listening to us, why for example society isn’t taking the threat of environmental change seriously enough? We often lambast the public for voting in the ‘wrong’ way or for not listening to the experts. We can express great surprise when we encounter members of the public, often keeping them at arms-length and using them for confirmation rather than allowing them to set the path of research in a truly participatory way. We act very surprised when we learn that non-academics think differently from us, hold different values, perhaps not really actively caring about the environment. Well, wake up everyone! People out there largely don’t think like us, so we either continue to do what we are doing, or we start reaching out to people in an inclusive way and telling some relevant, optimistic, and persuasive stories! Let’s get out of the office more – what are we doing sitting in there (except when students need to be supervised of course!)? Society is not in the office!

We certainly don’t solve this problem by portraying the public as stupid in the light of some unexpected election results. We don’t solve it by reverting to the deficit model of understanding. We don’t solve the problem of limited policy impact by publishing jargonistic articles in journals that no one can access or understand. If Jesus was a scientist, he wouldn’t be publishing in Science, he’d be taking the message to the people (he might actually do both!). I did make the point to the Minister that Jesus was successful because he took the message to the people, rather than waiting for them to come to him, but that fell on deaf ears.

So let me throw down the gauntlet to academics, and I do so not in a critical way because we need much more encouragement to produce research that is wise to the needs of government (funders, and universities take note!). I’m going to be taking a message of REF reform to the Universities Minister soon and I’ll be calling on him to join me in changing academia – we need to be incentivised to change so we need help. We need to prioritise policy and societal impact – I’ll be writing on this in the coming weeks and offering some practical suggestions for improving the impact of our work.



Why can’t great review papers be 4*?

I was recently involved with a study of evidence use in Parliament, a piece of research led by UCL STEaPP and POST. One of the main conclusions from this piece of work was that policy-makers weren’t interested in the latest, shiny, new academic papers. Since time is precious, they wanted accessible summaries of what the body of evidence said; in other words, nicely summarised syntheses of the evidence. I’ve written about this already here and make similar points in this blog written by a member of the Science in Policy group at the University of Sheffield.


Imagine my surprise then in my first ever REF progress meeting as a new permanent member of Faculty. When asked to propose my top papers, I immediately suggested a review that I did in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, which I thought was probably my most useful paper. The dismissal was instant – ‘sorry, that’s a review paper, that doesn’t make an ‘original, novel, significant contribution’ to knowledge so that can never be 3* or 4*’. What nonsense is this? We have policy-makers desiring syntheses of evidence, while at the same time criticising academia for not providing evidence in a usable format, and the powers-at-be shaping the REF are actively discouraging evidence synthesis? And as Neal Haddaway said to me after reading this, the novel part is the synthesis! Madness!

Now you might tell me that the impact part of the REF rewards such activity. Well yes, maybe it does. But academic career progression is still mainly linked to your ability to write a 4* paper. As I’ve written here, this seems to motivate academics to spend a good deal of time making up some fancy-words, upping the ‘bull****’ in a paper, and focusing on novelty. The consequence – we end up swimming in an ocean of new information without being able to make the most of what we already have.

The way to make the most of the evidence we have is to synthesise. Now I’ve had some experience of working with Bill Sutherland’s Conservation Science group at Cambridge who are real pioneers of synthesising, and then summarising conservation evidence, in a user-friendly way. This takes great skill and effort. Occasionally I’ve been met with slightly disappointed comments from colleagues when I say that I’ve written a review paper – a sort of patronising tone that might be saying ‘you did a review paper, that’s nice, you weren’t clever enough to come up with something novel, but well done anyway, that will be policy relevant’. This perception that systematic reviews and summaries of evidence are somehow easier than other types of academic papers is nonsense. It is exactly the kind of snobbish attitude that means that great review papers can’t be 4*.

So, answers in the comments section please everyone – why can’t a great review paper be worth 4*? It takes great skill, and it is what policy-makers want.