How researchers get heard

Public Expertise Fuels Research Innovation

Get an Old Fashioned or three into a researcher and they’ll eventually start complaining how their discipline is stuck in a rut, plowing already well-turned fields, scraping the last bit of ore off the side of the mine shaft.

It’s not just the alcohol talking: There’s now a small subfield (not stuck in a rut) tracking and discussing the decline in research productivity and the flow of ideas post WWII. The journalist and academic Noah Smith has a useful new overview that blames this “discovery problem” not on academics pursuing the wrong questions or an increasing scarcity of ideas to discover but on the structure of academics itself. From tenure to peer-reviewed publication to how granting agencies favor proven research directions, he writes

the modern research university encourages the mining of old, exhausted veins of “ore,’ rather than the vigorous search for new veins.…The way we do academic research — or at least, the way we’ve done it since World War 2 — is not quite suited to the way discovery actually works.

Smith doesn’t see a solution yet, although he sees bright spots from extra-academic novel funding approaches. The solution, he says, will have to encourage “not just novel research, but research in novel directions” — which includes “creating new fields that don’t have an established hierarchy of prestigious journals and elder luminaries” that can damp down innovation with the weight of elder privilege and sclerosis.

Another way of thinking about this research dead-end: A research culture that’s obsessed with filling research gaps is not going to be nearly as innovative as a research culture with strong inputs and feedback mechanisms from outside academia. The more we can incentivize those inputs and that feedback, the less incestuous (and more relevant) research will be.

Weirdly, Smith (as a prolific Substacker and Twitter user) doesn’t include being a public expert as a driver of innovation and discovery. Of course, researchers usually think about public expertise (or public engagement) as both a) peripheral to their core research work, and b) promotional of that work. And researchers aren’t usually rewarded for public expertise. But every researcher I’ve ever talked with insists that their public engagement forces them to do more innovative research — ​to apply both their own research and their knowledge of the evidence overall to problems in the world and then get feedback on that application, pushing both their expertise and research forward. Being a public expert makes you a better scholar. 

Perversely, research communications often gets in the way of becoming a public expert in a way analogous to how conventional research culture chokes off innovation. Research communications is all about promoting the individual research product, not cultivating a wider-aperture expertise that encourages innovation and addresses problems synthetically. Research communications’ answer to its lack of innovation is to overframe the importance of the research product beyond what it can reasonably bear, a kind of inflation that just damages the credibility of research generally. Public expertise, on the other hand, uses research communications but can shift into higher gears seamlessly. The order goes something like this:

Research communication: Translating an individual piece of research or analysis so that it’s usable by a particular community.

Knowledge communication: Translating the state of knowledge on a question or issue so that it’s usable by a particular community.

Public expertise: Applying not just your research and your knowledge of the evidence but also your expertise to that question or issue, with a POV that leads that community to a new way of seeing and acting (and gets you feedback that fuels future research directions).

Being a public expert creates markets and feedback for your full expertise. By contrast, research communications is like first gear. You’re moving, slowly. But if you want to differentiate your organization or advance a movement (or fuel your research), it’s not nearly fast enough.