Going From Science March to Political Impact

I was at the Bonn/Köln iteration of the March for Science and it was a good time. But as I watched the marches around the world, especially in the U.S., my thoughts turned to how to create further action. Large turnout in cities populated predominantly by people who already value science and empirically-based policy making can only go so far. A few quick thoughts going forward…

  1. Get involved in local politics. This is a goal I’ve set for myself, at least as much as I can as a non-citizen in the country I work in. It’s amazing how much physical and social science training can be put to use in local settings. For example, everything I know about collective action problems is not only useful in studying participatory governance in developing countries, it’s also applicable to town and city government. If you’re in the Earth sciences, get on the planning board or an Earth-science relevant area of local government.
  2. Once you have achieved joining the local government *do not turn into a know-it-all*. I have expertise in collection action problems; my job is not to remind people how dumb we are as a species for falling into the normal collection action traps. My job is, understanding those traps and knowing how they work in theory, to help the rest of my town hall compatriots manage them. This isn’t a lecture hall, it’s participation in governance.
  3. Think about how to broaden the base. Yes, a march is good and snarky signs are funny, but at some point people in districts in other parts of the country will elect representatives. As scientists, we have to make science valuable to people, so that they don’t elect charlatans who would take us back to the Middle Ages to line their pockets with a few bucks from lobbyists. One way to do this is to make the history of applied science, and the collective role of society and government in that history, central to any argument about the value of science in public policy. As scientists this starts with us – we have to be fluent and engaging in not only explaining the practice of our work, but the history (social, political, economic) of how our work fits into society. I read a great book on the history of urban planning in New York City a while back; there was a lot of detailed analysis of the engineering science, but it was written wonderfully. I had no idea how interesting, both from a social and chemical standpoint, concrete was. Making interesting what seems banal to non-scientists  would go a long way.
  4. If you have tenure, run for office. It’s hard as hell getting an academic or research career started, so if you are established and have some clout and job security, take advantage of your privilege and get involved in politics. Younger researchers will model this behavior as they become established as well.

That’s I’ve got at the moment (well, lots more, but it’s only a blog post). Be excited about science, be excited about it’s role in society, and don’t forget: People often vote on emotion. Empirics are good, but an engaging story will go a long way, too.

The Blog Will be Fuller

After a lovely year in Sydney as a research fellow with IEP I’ll be headed back to the Northern Hemisphere to finish my dissertation. I should be defending it this summer – once it’s done, it’ll be on to new and exciting research!

This also means that I now have the freedom and time to start posting here again. While the year was fun it was also busy, which meant limited time to blog. I’m planning on some data-oriented posts, which will be fun.

The schedule the next month or two includes a presenting at the Midwest Political Science Association meeting, hopefully popping into the Tech4Dev conference on short notice, giving a paper with the inimitable Nicholas Bodanac  at the European Political Science Association meeting in June, and hopefully circling all the way back to the Build Peace Conference in September. If you’re going to be at any of these, or anywhere in between, give me a shout!

Dissertation Proposal Defense

No, I won’t be ‘Dr.’ tomorrow, but the proposal defense is a milestone none the less. For those who are interested in my dissertation research, and can’t make it to my proposal defense tomorrow at 12:00PM at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, below is a sound file you can listen to. You can download my slideshow here and follow along that way as well!

Upcoming events!

Unfortunately the last few months have been fairly low output in terms of blog posts. This can be credited to resettling after returning from Samoa, getting back to work with the tech community in D.C, and of course getting a dissertation written. I have had the chance to get myself on a few panels this month and next to discuss my research, though. I’ll be joined by some awesome people too, so hopefully if you’re in D.C. you can come out and join us!

October 15: Brownbag lunch panel at the OpenGovHub hosted by the Social Innovation Lab, FrontlineSMS, and Ushahidi.

November 5: Guest talk at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service about my research in Samoa, and larger issues of using ICTs for crisis response.

Later in November: Dissertation proposal defense at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (exact date TBD). Open to the public!

Hopefully you can make it out to one or more of these, I think they’ll be really interesting!


Rigor Versus Reality: Balancing the field with the lab

I am finally able to respond (add) to a post by Chris Moore about the problem of mathematicization and formalization of political science, and social science more generally, as it relates to how the social sciences inform real policy issues.  As I’m finishing a Fulbright fellowship in Samoa, where I worked specifically on research supporting policy making in the ICT sector, Chris’s analysis was particularly apropos. As I read his post I thought “indeed, I’ve seen many an article in APSR that fall into the trap he describes,” articles with formal mathematics and econometrics that are logically infallible, use superbly defined instrumental variables, but have little explanatory value outside of the ontological bubble of theoretical political science. Why do academics do this? How can they (we…I’m sort of one myself) make academic research useful to non-academics, or at least bring some real-world perspective to the development of theory.

Qian and Nunn’s 2012 article on food aid’s effect on conflict is a good example of how formal methods can drive the question, instead of the question driving the method. Food aid indeed has an effect on conflict, and vice versa. To tease out a causal path from food aid to conflict though requires a logical stream that while formally correct, adds a lot of complexity to the argument. The thing that sticks out to me is they have to use an instrumental variable to make their argument. U.S. wheat production fits the requirements to be the variable they use, but do we really think that bumper crops in wheat actually lead to an increased risk of conflict? If so, is the policy prescription for decreasing conflict risk not allowing bumper crops of wheat? In the end they do a fair amount of complex logical modeling, then conclude by saying the data’s not good enough, we don’t really know the interactive effects of other aid on conflict, and that to really understand the relationship between food aid and conflict likelihood we need to explore the question in a different way.

Is there value in this type of exercise? Perhaps, but it’s probably limited to a number of academics who specialize in this type of intellectual exercise. Is this article useful to non-specialist readers or policy makers? Highly (99%) unlikely. Most policy makers don’t have the mathematical/statistical training to really understand the authors’ empirical strategy. If they do, they probably don’t have time to really digest it. That’s a fundamental problem, but it’s compounded by the use of an instrumental variable, which is a pretty abstract thing in itself. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that when we step outside the methodological confines the authors are working in, their analysis begins to lack inherent value. I don’t say this to shame or castigate Qian and Nunn; academics write for their peers since that’s who gives them job security.

So how do we derive value from this work if we want to inform policy? One way to do this is for academic departments to encourage doctoral students to try policy work during summers during the coursework phase. The summers between years one and two are good times for this; they’re pre-dissertation, so a student isn’t in a research mode yet, and the lessons learned during a summer in the field during coursework can feed into the writing of a dissertation. If we’re talking about faculty, departments can look for ways to reward writing for a general audience (about one’s field of specialization). Making public intellectualism part of the tenure file would probably be welcomed by many of the academics I know, who have a passion for their fields and would happily share their insights with public.

This has the added benefit of reducing groupthink or herd mentality, which academics are prone to like any other professional group. Possibly more so, since academic work is internally referential (academics cite each other). It’s easy in such an environment to stop asking why we’re adding a variable to a statistical analysis, or what value it has in a practical sense. By having to step out of the academic intellectual bubble, whether as a summer intern or to write an op-ed that has to be understood by a non-expert, it’s a chance to be in the field either physically or intellectually and re-assess why we’re analyzing particular variables and using particular methods.

At the very least it gives academics some raw material to take back to the lab, even if the ‘field’ is a disconcerting, statistically noisy place.



Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote the first half of this pair of posts, focusing on the problems in Nicholas Kristof’s piece on why professors should be more engaged in the public debate. I came down pretty hard on it, not because I disagree with the general sentiment (my doctoral research and interests are very policy relevant and I make an effort to be in the policy space as much as the academic), but because his logic was surprisingly faulty and he didn’t seem to have any understanding of the institutional culture and expectations of academia. In effect, he missed an opportunity to discuss the actual problems facing the academy, and how these prevent professors from being more publicly engaged.

Fortunately, Michelle Goldberg wrote an excellent rejoinder about the plight of two highly respected public intellectual-professors being let go after long careers with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for failing to raise 80% of their salaries in external grants. While Kristof went off on confused, ill-informed tangents about what makes an academic or academic field relevant in to the public space, Goldberg focused on what Kristof should have been writing about: the corporatization of universities, where pulling in external funding is the difference between having a job and not. Doing ground-breaking research counts for nothing it seems, unless you hit the your fundraising target. I’ll take this a step further; the problem facing universities and researchers isn’t just the outcome of bad business planning at the university level. It’s the politicization of research, and by extension validity and truth.

To start: I don’t have a problem with the idea of encouraging professors in research-oriented fields to seek external funding. Part of my dissertation studies were funded by money my dissertation supervisor pulled in; he was able to hire me as a research assistant when the department didn’t have funds immediately available to give me a stipend. At a much larger scale pulling in something like a National Science Foundation (or National Institutes of Health) grant can give a department the latitude to fund students (saving money in the core budget), hire post-docs, pay visiting scholars, and generally increase the capacity to do research. This can be a useful model for certain projects, especially in the natural sciences where the costs of equipment and logistics can run into the millions of dollars. But there’s a danger to universities placing a demand that professors raise significant portions of their salaries through external grants, while not maintaining core budgets to keep them on during lean times.

One is the business model. The Mailman School, like many large research schools, relies heavily on government research grants. These days its not good to be relying on federal research grants, especially if you’re in the social and behavioral sciences. If an academic institution decided to hitch its financial wagon to the soft money strategy of external funding, then politics in Washington is currently delivering a harsh lesson in how the political economy of ridiculous budget battles affects university staffing. But this isn’t merely a technical budgeting and forecasting issue; budgets and Federal spending don’t live in an otological bubble, disconnected from politics and popular sentiment. This is where Kristof fell off the wagon and Goldberg hit the nail on the head. To quote:

“Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.”

Basically it was the only thing Kristof was right about, which is why it’s unfortunate that he only dedicated one short paragraph at the beginning of his article to it. But it’s not just money, it’s the interplay between Congressional politics and how we proxy the public interest with Federal (and State) budgets. Congress is the policy representation of our societal id, and as Kristof notes there’s a strong current of anti-intellectualism in that id these days. This is where the political economy of how we define validity, truth and public good comes in, and why we’re in such a pickle even though at times we’ve been leaders in natural and social science research.

Let’s start with the obvious; a Senator or House member doesn’t get elected by telling their rabidly anti-intellectual constituents that they’re wrong or ignorant. They also don’t get elected by telling their corporate funders that truly empirical research based on first principles has indicated that their business model or industry is god-awful for the public good. In combination, this is a solid reason for a member of Congress to be unsupportive of Federally funded research, since most of it points out uncomfortable truths about our economic system, global warming, poverty, infrastructure, system of government, etc. But let’s assume that a member of congress really wanted to understand what was going on in all that natural and social science research. How many are trained to properly evaluate science (social and natural) research?

Thanks to Business Week, we can find out. In the House, we have 1 microbiologist, 2 engineers, and 1 physicist, out of 433. In the Senate, there’s 1 engineer, out of 100. That’s a grand total of 5 out of 533 members of the Legislative branch. It’s important that we know this, since Senator Tom Coburn passed a bill that effectively gives Congress the ability to pick and choose with research gets funded through the National Science Foundation. Essentially, Coburn politicized the process of scientific and empirical inquiry. Don’t like research about homeless people because it shows that your anti-poverty policy prescriptions are fanciful lies? You can cut funding for it. Running for office and your petroleum industry donors find climate research distasteful? No problem, you can eliminate that in that NSF funding stream. We have allowed politicians, only 1% of whom might be even remotely qualified to understand science research, to be the ones who decide what is worthy of scientific inquiry even if they have no idea what a P-value or co-linearity is.

This is what was so infuriating about Kristof’s article; while peddling insulting caricatures of zany academics and their ethereal models and theories, it failed to address the real problems facing academia and universities. Goldberg hit on the problem of funding and what it means for the vibrancy of a research community, but the problem goes farther than that. As a nation we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that we can be world leaders in research, commerce, and foreign policy among other things, while simultaneously dismantling and defunding the institutions that for the last 70 years have been key to our success.

Fundamentally this isn’t a problem of university funding structures or academics doing their jobs, those are just symptoms. At it’s core, this is a problem of an American society that has given into cynicism and handed the reigns to politicians who prey on fear and ignorance. The only way to beat this slump is to regain our national spirit of inquiry, adventure, and critical thinking, the exact things made us leaders in research and discovery for much of the last 70 years.

Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 1

This will be a two-parter since there’s a lot in it. It’s been interesting reading the initial article about why professors need to be involved in public debate from Nicholas Kristof and seeing the rejoinders, particularly Michelle Goldbergs’ article about Columbia University’s decision to let two of their best professors of public health go. I’m a doctoral candidate whose research agenda is a hybrid between political science and public policy, and I haven’t decided yet on whether I want to go into academia or public policy, so I’ve found this debate interesting. Starting with Kristof, who I usually enjoy reading, I agreed with his sentiment at a meta level, but found the article generally ill-informed and at times oddly contradictory. Continue reading

EPFL Tech4Dev Conference call for papers!

My colleague Dr. Paula Lytle from the World Bank and I will be co-hosting a panel at the Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne’s Tech4Dev Conference, June 4-6 2014!  Our session will cover policy and technology for disaster risk reduction.  The conference is a good one, particularly since it covers topics ranging from social policy to hardware to civil engineering, but is thematically designed so that the broad variety of topics all relate to one another over the three days of the event.  If you’re interested in submitting an abstract, the deadline is October 14, 2013 – hope to see you in Lausanne next summer!