Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Hey indeedy . . .

Sarah Kendzior, a newly minted Ph.D. in anthropology, discusses the recent vote by the senate to prohibit the National Science Foundation from funding political science research. This is not really a vote per se -- it was an amendment tucked inside the continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down. But Democrats went along to avoid a fight (as always). Here's the fuller story on the Senate action.

Anyway, Kendzior's major points are ones I have made in the past, maybe not so well. The Republican war against science and reason succeeds as well as it does because academic researchers insulate themselves from the public. Research reports are hidden behind very high paywalls -- subscriptions to scholarly journals cost hundreds of dollars a year -- and they are written in obscure jargon the main purpose of which is to make it all seem mysterious and profound to outsiders.

As long as scientists depend for their career advancement and research funding solely on publication in peer reviewed journals and arcane communication within a highly specialized circle, we aren't going to have a whole lot of political support to pay for what we do. We need to serve the people, engage with the people, listen to the people, and communicate with the people. Yet writing for a general audience and engaging in public debate can actually harm scholarly careers. (It's a major reason why Paul Starr didn't get tenure at Harvard.)

The Open Access publication movement helps. When I publish in open access journals, I hear from people -- not people in academia, but people who are working in public health and clinical care. I got invited by a state health department to do a webinar on one of my open access papers for people involved in HIV care and prevention. I got an e-mail from the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, and from front-line workers in the U.S. and Canada. That never happens, believe me, when I publish in subscription-only scholarly journals. There are lots of folks out there who are hungry for the latest ideas and findings that are relevant to the work they do, but most of it is unavailable to them. (I also like to give myself some credit for writing in accessible English.)

That is absurd, unethical, and counterproductive to the cause of continued public support for science. Without that support, we're out of work. So it's high time for us to change our ways.

No comments: