The need to be both scholar and expert is an urgent one

Academics must be able to walk among colleagues in the ivory tower and distil their thoughts to the non-technical masses in order to protect democratic norms, says Alex de Ruyter 

August 7, 2018
Ask an expert. Business card with message, notepad and flowers
Source: iStock
Expertise is not just some optional extra

A common phrase once applied to those serious on embarking on a scholarly path was “publish or perish”. All that mattered to foster a successful academic career was to get articles (typically double-blind peer-reviewed ones) accepted into so-called leading or international journals. 

That is no longer enough. The pressure on academics to promulgate their ideas in “quality” outputs has now been superseded by a more pressing imperative to make their research immediately relevant by disseminating it in a wider public space. In other words, to a disparate group of non-academic stakeholders, so as to demonstrate the economic utility of their work.

As such, the timelines for academics to put their work into the public domain have become shorter; and the pressure to achieve impact before the final approval of a peer-reviewed publication is paramount. These demands, in turn, serve to reduce the amount of time available to achieve outputs. 

To thrive, today’s academic must be part researcher, part entrepreneur and part communicator par excellence. 

The traditional “scholar” has largely conversed with contemporaries skilled in their own subject areas. In the Middle Ages, this scholastic community in the Western world was defined, among other things, by its use of Latin as a lingua franca for common correspondence – at the exclusion of the vernacular. 

Consider, for example, the career of the Anglo-Italian economist Piero Sraffa, who is widely credited as having provided a robust critique of neoclassical economics that instigated the Cambridge capital controversies and seen as the progenitor of the “neo-Ricardian” school of thought in economics.  

Sraffa’s magnum opus, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory, was published in 1960 and took about 30 years to produce.

In contrast, the “expert” is a distinctly modern characterisation of someone who must be capable of immediately grasping the essential details of contemporary phenomena and distilling them to “explain” the salient features to a non-technical audience. 

Thus, by definition, the “expert” is grounded in the vernacular. Such individuals can have this tag given to them by simple virtue of their profile in the public domain. For example, those professionals working in the City of London financial services sector who are termed “economists” even though they might not have an economics degree per se (and, generally, do not hold the academic qualification of doctorate that would earmark them as a genuine specialist in a particular branch of their special subject).

That many of these individuals simply repeated conventional nostrums about free markets and their purported “efficiency” only exposed the fragility of their expert status in failing to predict the 2008 financial crisis. That low point of the economics “profession” was famously encapsulated by the Queen at a visit to the London School of Economics in 2008 when she asked why no one saw the financial crisis coming. 

Thus, in this fashion, was the status of a subject area so comprehensively trashed that it would be easy for individuals such as the former UK education secretary Michael Gove to come along almost a decade later, during the 2016 Brexit referendum, and further deride the status of “experts”.

This brings us back to an important point about the dissemination of “objective” knowledge, rather than just opinions or propaganda. Edward Bernays, regarded as the father of public relations in the 1940s, argued that propaganda could have a positive role in a democratic society by providing a plurality of “guiding thoughts” for “the masses” (as opposed to one stream of guiding thought in a dictatorship). 

However, academics are defined as credible by grounding their arguments and “guiding thoughts” in some type of robust evidence base – or at least an internally consistent system of logical thinking and assumptions. 

However, in the realm of human interaction characterised by social sciences, separating the “objective” from the “normative” is a difficult activity at the best of times. In the 21st-century context of all-pervasive multimedia and multiple information sources, the academic function of enquiry – the testing, review and publishing of research – becomes ever more pressurised by the need to contribute to and influence public debate.

It is this dilemma that leaves one wondering if a balance between “scholar” and “expert” can be achieved. A simple answer might be in the use of cross-disciplinary teams, with less emphasis on the individual as a sole author of significant works – thus enabling the harnessing of a wide range of talents and aptitudes; and, crucially, engaging practitioners to co-create impact and dialogue with the “mundane world”. 

However, the urgency of this in a political climate where democratic norms are increasingly coming under attack demands it. A salutary warning from history is provided by John Maynard Keynes, who noted in 1936 that “[m]admen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”. Or, as the Australian pop band Inxs sang in the early 1990s, “I was thinking, got the feeling, the gift you give is going to last forever…”.

Alex de Ruyter is a professor and director of the Centre for Brexit Studies, Birmingham City University.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Society urgently needs scholars to be experts as well

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments