Making Academia Matter Again
Academics can no longer afford to pat themselves on the back and celebrate their own privileges. If they are to defend the freedom of their enterprise, they must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of their research – and how research actually occurs – is well understood.
CAMBRIDGE – Academic freedom is a precious commodity, critical to ensure that discovery of the truth is not encumbered by political or ideological forces. But this does not mean that intellectuals should hide in academic bunkers that, by protecting us from criticism by “non-experts,” allow ego to flourish and enable a focus on questions that are not actually relevant to anyone else. We experts should have to explain ourselves.
This means, first and foremost, that researchers should be communicating their results in a way that supports accountability and confirms that public funds and education benefits are being used in ways that are in taxpayers’ interests. The duty to communicate findings also ensures that the public is educated, not only about the topic itself, but also about the way research actually works.
Scholarly books and journals often give the impression that the truth is revealed through a neat, orderly, and logical process. But research is far from being a pristine landscape; in fact, it resembles a battlefield, littered with miscalculations, failed experiments, and discarded assumptions. The path to truth is often convoluted, and those who travel along it often must navigate fierce competition and professional intrigue.
Some argue that it is better to hide this reality from the public, in order to maintain credibility. For example, in 2014, physicists collaborating on a project known as BICEP2 thought that they had detected gravitational waves from the beginning of the universe. It was later realized that the signal they had detected could be entirely attributed to interstellar dust.
Some of my colleagues worried that this revelation would undermine faith in other scientific predictions, such as those involving climate change. But would hiding the truth from the public really do more for scientific and academic credibility than cultivating a culture of transparency? Probably not. In fact, being honest about the realities of research might enhance trust and create more space for innovation, with an informed public accepting that risk is the unavoidable and worthwhile cost of groundbreaking and broadly beneficial discoveries.
Another way to ensure that academia continues to innovate in useful and relevant ways is to blur the traditional boundaries among disciplines – the frontiers where invention so often happens. To that end, universities should update their organizational structure, moving away from clearly delineated departments in order to create a kind of continuum across the arts, humanities, and sciences. Students should be encouraged to take courses in multiple disciplines, so that they can weave those lessons and experiences into new patterns of knowledge.
To make this process sustainable, universities should ensure that the courses and curricula they offer help students to develop the skills that a fast-changing labor market demands. This means not just creating new curricula today, but also updating them every few years, in order to account for new trends and discoveries in areas ranging from artificial intelligence and Big Data to alternative energy sources and genome editing.
Professors, for their part, should approach their job as mentors of future leaders in science, technology, the arts, and humanities, rather than attempting to mold students in their own intellectual image. Of course, the latter approach can be useful if the goal is to advance the popularity of one’s own research program and to ensure that one’s own ideas and perspective endure. But that is not the fundamental mission of academia.
The louder the consensus in the echo chambers of academia become, the greater the ego boost for those who inhabit those chambers. But history shows that progress is sometimes advocated by a soft voice in the background, like that of Albert Einstein during his early career. Truth and consensus are not always the same. Diversity of opinion – which implies diversity of gender, ethnicity, and background – is vital to support creativity, discovery, and progress.
That is why it is so important for prizes and professional associations to be used not to reinforce mainstream perspectives, but rather to encourage independent thought and reward innovation. This does not mean that all opinions should be considered equal, but rather that alternative views should be debated and vetted on merit alone.
We in academia cannot continue to pat ourselves on the back, celebrating our own privileges and failing to look at the world in new and relevant ways. If we are to defend the freedom of our enterprise, we must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of our work is well understood – including by us.