Observers or actors? Academics as participants

Last week’s office

I got to spend a couple of days in Florence last week, celebrating the 50th anniversary of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association, of which I’m Treasurer.

We spent some time looking back, but also a lot talking about where we are and where we might be heading, both as an association and as academics in general. Being joined by the heads of our American and Irish sister bodies also raised some really interesting ideas about collaboration across borders.

Underpinning that discussion was a debate that has been coming ever more to the fore in recent years: how much should we, as academics, be trying to offer ideas and solutions to public debate, rather than just analysis?

Clearly, this has always been a question that has been there for the academy, since our fundamental objective of trying to understand the world is necessarily linked to participating in it. But the various events of late – from government crack-downs to elections and referendums to societal challenges – have all pointed towards a role also being forced upon us.

Put differently, if everyone thinks we’re getting involved any way, shouldn’t we get involved properly: if we’re taking the costs, then shouldn’t we try to generate some benefits too? If you like, this is the equivalent of my post on social media a few weeks back: if you don’t project an image, then someone will project it for you.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that we didn’t crack that particular nut last week, not least because the fineness of the line between contribution and campaigning leaves many feeling very uncomfortable. Having seen how some of those who have been seen to cross that line have been treated, that discomfort is understandable, if not necessarily the only factor to consider.

At a time when politicians seem to be facing ever more issues to which they have no good response, the role of the academic in providing insights and options surely becomes more important. It’s literally our job to try and make sense of assorted phenomena and it would be remiss of us not to share that sense-making with others.

That might be easily said, but how that translates into practice is unclear. Do we wait to be asked? Do we have to agree among ourselves? Do we just call out bullshit, or try to advance evidence-based solutions?

All big questions, with assorted viable answers.

At the very least, we need to be talking about this, before we find ourselves pushed into roles that others have chosen for us.

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