I am a somewhat cynical person (note the English understatement) and my philosophy is more “do no harm” than “save the world”. In a sense then I am quite comfortable in my (tiny) ivory tower, labouring away to add a few new levels to the tower every year. Why do I want a taller ivory tower? Well in part so that others can marvel at my achievements (“look on my works ye mighty, and despair!”) and in part because a taller tower gives me a better angle for firing shots at other ivory towers that displease me.
In this way Academia pootles along, like a huge ‘care in the community’ scheme where the somewhat bewildered hordes of academe build and knock down their towers while being more or less quietly ignored by the wider world (like a global community of Don Quixotes… ”Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, [their] brain[s] dried up and [they] went completely out of [their] mind[s]”). Of course we hope that while firing at other ivory towers some of our lofty ideas will fall to the ground where a grateful public are waiting eagerly to receive them.
Clearly, the notion of ivory tower academics is a caricature and peer-reviewed science can and does have a fundamental impact on policy and governance. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ and more recently the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ concepts are ideas that arose from science and have/are having significant effects on how policy makers andthe wider public see the world. Somewhat sadly all three of these notions are interpreted in ways that are often at odds with the subtleties and nuance of the scientific debates. My own experience of working on the UK national Ecosystem Assessment and the subsequent interpretation of this report by the UK government makes me wary of the “fire and forget” (publish and pay no attention to?) strategy of scientific communication with non-scientists. Similarly I despair when I read about science in the media as the reporting of science is so poor, admittedly I read the Guardian, which probably does not help.
So what is the alternative? Well at some point if we wish to engage the public (on our own unfiltered terms) we need to clamber down from our ivory towers. I have had the privilege to work with a number of academics who actively seek to engage with non-scientists. This year Joern Fischer (owner of this blog and my boss) and his team undertook a scientific roadshow to discuss their research with the people in their study region. Jahi Chapell (another contributor to this blog) actively engages with policy-makers to change dominant narratives regarding the management of food systems). Tibor Hartel (yet another contributor to this blog) is actively engaging local and national politicians regarding the preservation of the beautiful wood pastures of Romania. Dan O’Neill is a tireless and effective communicator of the need for Steady State Economics.
I find all of these people and their approaches to communicating beyond the ivory tower inspiring, and here would like to add one more to the list. Evan Fraser, (a former PhD supervisor of mine) along with his team at Guelph University work on food security issues and has created a marvellous resource in https://feedingninebillion.com/ using different forms of media to engage the public in the food security discourse. His latest effort is a graphic novel about global food security (the first two issues are available here). Despite my innate cynicism I think these different approaches to engaging the public are hugely important. My long journey to becoming a sustainability scientist with an interest in food systems was initially motivated by a comic book story about poverty, food security and power that I read as a teenager (the excellent Third World War published in Crisis comics) and gavanized by a wandering Sadu in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh (a story for another post). If even a cynical old curmudgeon like me can be motivated a graphic novel there is hope!