I spent Thursday and Friday at the annual conference of the Danish Political Science Association where a roundtable discussion about about the public role of academics was one of the main events. Even if the roundtable had been planned before the very public conflict earlier this year between Marlene Wind, who is a professor at the University of Copenhagen specialising in EU policy, on the one hand and the Danish People’s Party and the Liberal Party on the other hand, it obviously adressed the issue that public appearances can be controversial.
I did feel, however, that the discussion suffered from a lack of focus as it tried to cover two very different phenomena: Academics as policy advisors, e.g. as members of commissions, working groups or consultants, and academics as “public intellectuals” commenting and analysing contemporary events like the recent election campaign or EU politics regarding the economic crisis. As somebody noticed, economists and – in particular – lawyers have been happy to appear as policy advisors since time immemorial and conversely politicians and bureaucrats have never had any reservations in using them in that capacity. That political scientists have found it harder to reach a similar position may be due to reservations from within the discipline but the lack of a body of policy recommendations may be equally important.
With regard to the other part of the discussion I was struck by the fact that it only adressed the relationship between academia and the traditional media. As an aside I should perhaps note that political scientists in the eyes of journalists make bad commentators because we are often reluctant to predict the future outcome of a process. There are good reasons for this: Back when I used to teach introductory courses in political science, I always made students aware of the fact that one of the simplest and best predictive theories within the discipline – the minimal winning coalition theory of government formation – could only predict about one third of all government formations.
But to return to my main question: This spring I, along along with all other academic employees at the Department of Political Science at the University of Southern Denmark, received a call for contributions to a special election edition of Politiken which was to be distributed to schools. I decided not to participate because I felt that there were people at the department who could write more topical articles about labour market policy, but I also wondered why the department and Politiken had decided to concentrate the initiative solely on print media. Sure, the edition would be made available as a printable pdf, but as far as I could tell there were no plans for interactive features or updating or supplementing or updating the articles during the election campaign. It looked as though the internet did not exist in the minds of my colleagues.
The same could be said about the debate at the conference. I didn’t take notes but I can’t recall the internet ever being mentioned, let alone blogs or (even if I truly hate the term) social media. As somebody who have lived and worked in Sweden, I find it puzzling that I have Swedish colleagues who tweet and/or blog so I can have continuous exchanges with them but Danish political scientists with a personal appearance on the internet are very much the exception. (Take a look at my Links page for some Swedish and international examples) Even polsci departments stick to the basic templates offered by the universities – and they do not include space for any kind of web-based publications. (For a Norwegian example, see the Ta Politika blog from the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo).
I am not sure why the internet is such a non-issue. Maybe my colleagues feel that established media give them sufficient outlet for public appearances or that digital media by definition are not an arena to take seriously. Maybe it is lack of knowledge (a senior professor called my mobile phone “a social medium” when I was checking the Guardian website for news about Greece…). Some would perhaps argue that the pressure to seek grants and publish in peer-reviewed English language journals means that academics should not spend time on interactive media – but then: Why do the Swedes, the Norwegians and the US Americans make more active use of the internet? Surely they must feel the pressure as much as my colleagues. As you can see, I have no good answers.
PS: It appeared that nobody at the conference had read Inside Higher Ed’s recommendations about how to handle established media.