Communicating beyond the ivory tower (or why comics matter)

Foodcrisis Chapter 2 Cover

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 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!


19 thoughts on “Communicating beyond the ivory tower (or why comics matter)

  1. Great post. I sympathise and can identify with almost every single word. I would add one more thing – transdisciplinarity, as this clambering down from our ivory tower is fancily called nowadays, can be extremely stressful and, in fact, disappointing. It is not easy to communicate the complex issues we ourselves need years of full-time work to understand more or less properly. Still, it would be too easy and self-convenient to use this as an excuse to remain in the ivory tower. Even if we don’t succeed – at least we should try.

    • HI,

      I would argue that transdisciplinarity (ideally) is not about clambering down from our ivory towers (as I have described it), but rather engaging with the ‘real world’ in deciding what sort of towers we should build and how we might build them together. I suspect this is even more difficult, stressful and fraught with disapointment than more traditional forms of the science/society interface, but I agree with you that we should not use this as an excuse to remain in the ivory tower… Although I am keen on observing these transdisciplinary processes from ‘up above’ for a while, before attempting to clamber down and try them myself (in the name of first doing no harm).

      • Thaks! Some chaotic thoughts:
        I think it is very important to joke. Seriously. This term ‘joke’ means not only saying jokes but be extremely relaxed and create a positive atmosphere around you. Ca 50% of those cases you mentioned can be solved with this. Plus, and besides, its important to frame the problem. E.g. its not about the protection and conservattion of wood-pastures but to assure their economc and ecological sustainability. Solutions exist etc. Say this, and trust in what u say. Re trees: the first point is to agree that remarkable, large trees, are values. Every other detail is unimportant at this stage. I mention ecological values the last one. Trees have historical, cultural values, they are beautiful…depends really on the person. Plus, trust the creativity and good will of the person. We often are too pushy with our great solutions, igniring the fact that the same thing (dpending on which it is) can be solved with other methods too. Often I also avoid them (or approach them through frinends, or…husbands/wifes:))), although I know its not solution.
        All should not be like a constipation, but fun and ways to learn about yourself and the world.

  2. Thanks Dave. Depending on the system (social, institutional, political), the real world can be too consuming. So consuming, that one would not have the time to do well the academic work. And we need good science. So that we need good scientists because we need good knowledge, who are in touch with those other academics who are engaged in the real world and cannot produce mainstream knowledge. I think its about openness and communication. And fun. Thanks a lot!

    Btw we started a facebok page entitled Remarkable Trees of Romania. In just 2 weeks we have 1000+ members and already an active community. And we have extraordinary non acadmics also contributing. For example the profile picture is made by Dan Perjovschi, who use clever and simple cartoons to communicate. He wrote: ‘Remarkable Tree: I am here before you.’ There are indeed so many people of which concerns are extremely similar with that of us: the loss of the diversity (of values, can be species, building, knowledge etc.). We indeed can communicate well and to people.

    • Hi Tibi,
      I see very strongly from your approach that you seek out and engage with ‘likeminded’ individuals and groups who need and appreciate the inputs from academia to support and encourage them (and indeed to use their energy to support and encourage your research). I see that this has a real and positive influence on both the scientists and none scientists, but I wonder how you engage with those who don’t neccessarily share your world view? And if doing so is also motivational for you?

  3. Wonderful post (and replies). Here at the CGIAR we get to conduct research that is often done in close collaboration with local stakeholders (e.g. local NGOs) and communities, leads to outputs and outcomes that are intended to directly benefit those on ground, is multidisciplinary (e.g. nutrition, gender and ecosystem services in same study), and we have dedicated communications people to disseminate messages.
    And still it is herculean work by all parties to get the messages out there with the necessary nuances, to a large enough audience. As a researcher in this arena, I truly rely upon the outputs from academia on a daily basis, and seek to integrate this into my work, communicate it colleagues in other disciplines, etc. So, that which flows from the ivory towers is being put to work all the time. Keep it flowing, please!
    However, the career yardsticks and systemic aspects of academia could do more to move a little (?) from impact factors to impact – why are many researchers not rewarded for having their research integrated into policy, for instance?
    Other points:
    – Dave, you are questioning the Guardian’s science reporting…maybe compare to the Daily Mail or The Australian? : )
    – Have forwarded this post to some of our splendid communications folk.
    – Am re-reading Sandman.

    Thanks again, Simon

    • Hi Simon,
      thanks. I think the point about how academics are ‘rewarded’ it really an important one. I agree that it is true that we are rewarded very much for the “height of our towers” (both in terms of career advancement and how we are viewed by our peers) rather than for our enagement with the public. I guess this is partly because the former is relatively easy to assess. H index scores are essentially a measure of ivory tower height (it just occured to me while writing this how this all seems very much like a form of competition/fighting for mating right, we compare antler sizes before we clash heads, but who are we clashing heads for? Anyway I digress).. Part of the problem is that communication and engagement with the public is very difficult to assess, although increasingly this engagement with the public seems to be recognized as important in grant applications, I think this can only be a good thing.
      Regarding science reporting and the Guardian, well I don’t think I have the emotional or mental strength to bring myself to read a science article in either the Daily Mail or The Australian, but I expect a little bit more from the Guardian and am generally disapointed.
      As for the Sandman, and at the risk of this becoming a literary blog, if you have not read it, I would highly recommend Neil Gaiman’s latest book, The ocean at the end of the lane, I found it to be truely remarkable.


      • Dave – certainly societal ‘impact’ is all but impossible to measure at the present time. That said, this criminally under-cited paper talks about how scientists and policy folk might interact a little more effectively:
        Gibbons, P., Zammit, C., Youngentob, K., Possingham, H. P., Lindenmayer, D. B., Bekessy, S., … & Wintle, B. (2008). Some practical suggestions for improving engagement between researchers and policy‐makers in natural resource management. Ecological Management & Restoration, 9(3), 182-186.

        And yes, “Ocean…” is a work of utter genius and enchantment….maybe we should engage Gaiman to write an article on sustainability?!

        Cheers, Simon

  4. I find the too-common insularity of academia far more frustrating and disappointing than anything I have experienced in transdisciplinarity or engaging with civil society.

    And while I respect, admire, and indeed am one of the ilk of “scientists”, I think we need far more community organizers than we need more scientists; more people with compelling, nuanced abilities to synthesize existing knowledge and ability and desire to communicate with the public than people “creating” “new” knowledge. And I am daily disheartened more by those who seek to measure “tower height-type” impact so that they can pursue their own research loves, with only the most abstract regards for contribution to social good or change.

    Of course social change is hard to measure. It takes generations. The fact that we WANT to be able to see it now, or that change is urgent, is wholly separate from the questions of these dynamics actually work, or at what speeds. Nevertheless, like scientific knowledge, without the work now–before we know how it will turn out and what its value will be in future–nothing of importance can be achieved. The end of large-scale legal slavery take ages; that doesn’t mean it’s critics in the 100s CE through the 1800s CE were wasting their time, or should’ve just “waited”.

    One of my recent favorite quotes (though I forget who said it!): “If you finish your life’s work in your lifetime, you haven’t dreamed big enough.”

  5. And call me a cynical Abson, but I also think scientific rationalists owe it to ourselves to acknowledge the distinct possibility, at least, that scientific rationalists are not all as important as we like to think we are. To be sure: important, but it seems likely that, as with many things, there are dismissing returns (each additional paper and additional scholar seems unlikely to contribute as much on the margin to total social good as the one before), and it seems like few scientists are eager or willing to engage seriously *on a philosophical level*, not just practical (e.g. Performance metric) level to consider what kinds of scholarship may be most valuable towards the problems that face us. We are faced, I’d say, with productivism on nearly all sides (see the work of Joern and colleagues here on quantity vs. quality in academic life!) and reluctance from nearly as many sides to seriously consider justice, equity, and procedural reforms in the direct context of our own work. (Present company excepted!)

    • I would never call you a cynical (Abson) Jahi… You might be bigger than me… I think the issue of deminishing marginal returns on academic thought is an interesting one, but perhaps a little misleading in that it kind of presupposes a neat linear aggreation of scientifc knowledge and I think science is a bit messier than that with new directions mini explosions, emergent properties and all sorts of other non-linearities.

      Regarding what scientists are willing to do in order to solve our societial problems, I think some of it is not a question of willing, but one of ability and constraints. Scientists are taught to be rationalists, to debate and discuss within our own ‘community’. Transdisciplinarity and engagement with the public are not often learnt during a PhD and without those skills it seems quite a daunting task (especially, if like me you are worried about making things worse). Moreover, what little power scientists have arises in part from the cloak (lab coat?) of legitimacy that comes from being an objective outside observer of the world. Wadding into the muddly real world risks getting that cloak all dirty. The balance between scientist and actvist is a tricky one to negotiate.

      I guess one sop I have for my concious is that teaching (i hope) really can have a real world influence, and in order for me to teach well first I have to learn. That is what my research is for, not to educate the world, but to first and formost to educate myself.

  6. Fair point, and MUCH of it is not a question of willing, but rather one of institutional constraints. That said, I have known of far too many people for whom the contributions to society element of research is a pretext–though an earnestly believed one–for “doing work that interests me and justifying all of the support mechanisms and sacrifices, on my part and those of others, while being in reality less concerned about societal benefits and more about justification for focusing nearly-exclusively on my specific passion.” This is where my cynical reaches full flower, perhaps. But a *very* senior colleague recently told me that they increasingly viewed the traditional approach to ecological research as self-indulgent and wondered about other ways they could continue to make a larger difference.

    You’re right that returns to science are non-linear–but I would argue that this is used way too often as a justification for why “MY” particular project should be funded, and it is almost never seriously considered in terms of real opportunity costs to society on those resources. (Arguably, those of us with transdisciplinary understandings would be better served doing *more* teaching and *less* research, unlike major universities promote here, because the dissemination of our knowledge so far lags behid our accumulation of it.)

    In terms of “making things worse”, I find that an interesting thought… that seems only possible if scientists’ conversations are arrogated a greater credibility than that of other citizens, WHILE citizens continue to misunderstand science as a list of “answers” rather than processes to find better(ish) answers. I agree that we receive little relevant training, but where I depart is to what degree that can or should tie our hands, and indeed, to what degree academics have an arguable obligation to move beyond these limitations anyway (I’ve often referenced Nelson & Vucetich around this: ; my takes here and here.

    To pretentiously quote King Lear, I think academics’ rationalist and highly elite training betrays the need for so much to be done as Gloucester says: “I see, feelingly.” Or alternatively, as Freire says, “One learns the path by walking it; no one learns to walk but by walking.”

    • Hi Jahi,
      I think you are probably right regarding the need to learn transdisciplinarity “on the job”… it does make me wonder why then there is so much (dense) theory in the field of transdisciplinary science? I think my “do no harm” concern here is no so much that scientists have a greater credibility/power than other citizens, but rather that transdiciplinarity requires a lot of effort and I worry that a failed process might reduce the desire for citizens to engage with science a second time (first impressions count and all that).

      As for your pretention in quoting Shakespeare, I am hardly one to comment given that I quoted both Shelley and Cervantes in a post ostensibly about comics. Just be thankful I did not quote Cervantes in the original Spanish (I will let you decide if that is because I couldn’t or because I wouldn’t).

      • Hahaha! Excellent points.

        I would say that I am thinking of learning communication with the public “on the job” as much as transdisciplinarity in the doing.

        I see the value in your “do no harm” approach, but it is an interesting self-limiting approach: it means that those who are least careful therefore might be the most engaged. But beyond this, to me the resolution has increasingly been participatory processes. When done right, these rarely leave participants turned off to engagement, from the rather extensive literature I’ve seen on it. The sticking point I’ve seen most in the literature is that such processes are much more likely to produce “satisfied” participants than they are satisfactory (peer-reviewed, “objective”) scientific results. This is where I find a somewhat (in my opinion) willful neglect of outreach in academia, as administrators and grant funders seem (to me) to often try and ignore or refute that there may be trade-offs between classic academic outcomes and truly participatory and/or political change-inducing research. And among rank-and-file academics, I find a similar hesitance to admit this may exist, or if the admission is made, to throw up one’s hands rather than get involved in (a) pointing this out, and (b) forcing the hard discussions of what to do about it.

        One example: at one of my jobs, we had a local “science-intensive” high school interested in collaborating with us. A senior colleague said “I think we’re all on board for the ideals here, but the question is — if it’s not going to be generating grant funding, or research papers, are we going to find time to do it?” And that…. was basically that. The conversation stalled there, without anyone recognizing that this may present a basic flaw in the way things are currently done, RATHER THAN a reason that it can’t be done. I mean, tenure and all — many of them could AFFORD to participate, strictly speaking, but there was a confluence of (a) it’s not something they’d be rewarded for, and (b) it’s not something important enough for them to support it by “sacrificing” time with what they really cared about–creating science that speaks to others specializing in their area, and answering scientific questions that they found interesting. The fact that it could significantly influence the lives of these high school students for the better, improve the pipeline of quality students into universities, and improve (local) public understanding of science was sacrificed on the alter of freerider problems and lack of prioritization.

        I’m not saying the right thing to do was buck the entire system and embark on such an enterprise anyway; but CERTAINLY that should have motivated (again, especially senior colleagues) to step up their game in talking about how current structures mitigate against “public outreach”.

        In my opinion, this type of hting is both more common and more damaging than ‘failed” engagement, assuming the engagement is not, to mangle your analogy, dropping things on people from our towers on high and wondering why they didn’t like it. The somewhat accurate perception that scientists don’t care about helping out “in the trenches” is more damning and damaging than a possible reduction in scientific credibility from engagement.

        IMHO, as they say.

  7. I am enjoying this exchange. I am up for tenure and promotion this year, and so far my community engagement work (including a special feature newspaper comic insert – and associated 4th grade curriculum modules – on farm biodiversity: has been supportively assessed by externals. One went so far as to write, “Our college is moving ahead with getting stronger recognition of so-called Community Engaged Scholarship as a legitimate (and recognized at T&P time) form of scholarship rather than being relegated to a glorified service contribution. Given some of what you’re doing these days you might find some bits of interest at the home page for the Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship @“. It might interest those following this discussion as well.

    • Hi Kate,
      Thanks for the interesting links. I think a formal/institutional acknowledgement of the importance of outreach/transdiciplinarity is vitally important if this approach is to become embeded in academia. This comes back to the point Jahi alluded to in his last post that those with a tenured position should have the freedom to engage outside academia.

      Here is the ‘rub’ as I see it. In the German system, with exception of some enlightened insitutions such as Luephana where transdisciplinarity is true valued, the average time between finishing a PhD and getting a tenured position (full profesorships being the only tenured positions in Germany -see this interesting blog for details ) is 12 years. Now if what is valued in getting a tenured position is ‘tower building’ then by the time you get the freedom of tenure you have to spent a good 15 years of your career learning how to build towers and precious little in engagement. So at the point were you are ‘free’ to engage outside academia your are quite likely to be stuck in your ways and what to continue to do the thing (tower building) that you have been getting good at for so long… you can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

      Engagement should not have start when you get tenure and formal insitutional recognition of enagement needs to be built into the career paths of non-tenured scientists so that this is not the case.

  8. I should also probably add that I do (rightfully) get a fair bit of stick (criticism in non-british parlance) for my “do no harm” philosophy, and I suspect that at some point I will have to admit that it is a pretty weak argument.. only my natural Yorkshire belligerence/quarrelsomeness is holding it at bay.

  9. Two fairly new Ambio papers may be interesting to this discussion;

    Identifying the role of conservation biology for solving the environmental crisis – Fredrik Dalerum

    Conservation biology and the endarkenment – Paul Ehrlich

    November 2014, Volume 43, Issue 7, pp 847-848, Date: 20 Sep 2014

  10. Great post, thank you! As you say in one of your comments, modern science training often doesn’t give the skills to communicate in a way that is interesting or engaging to a non-scientist audience…these skills need to be incorporated more in science education, which has become increasingly specialist.
    The comic idea is really neat – I have a graphic novel of the Origin of Species…it actually works as a great ‘index’ for the original version! When I’m looking for a particular story in the book and I can’t remember where it is, it’s easier to find the location in the graphic version.

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