The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, by M. V. Lee Badgett

Scholars seeking to make a difference are let in on the secrets of engagement, says Richard Joyner

February 4, 2016
M. V. Lee Badgett, University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst)
Source: Center for American Progress/Ralph Alswang
Engaging personality: Lee Badgett offers tips on how to speak what Andrew Marr has called ‘fluent human’

You have just finished an important piece of research, and it has been accepted by your chosen journal. You know that it has implications beyond the academic sphere and you want it to make a difference. How can you get it out there? How can you make sure that those in a position to bring about the changes that your work justifies actually know about it? As an academic you probably have no training in public engagement and may find the prospect a little frightening – or a lot. Do not fear: help is at hand with Lee Badgett’s comprehensive, step-by-step primer for use by any researcher who seeks to influence policy.

Badgett is a social scientist whose work and public engagement have been influential in furthering the interests of the LGBT community in the US, but her advice will be useful to all social and natural scientists and well beyond. In addressing three main themes of seeing the bigger picture, networking effectively and communicating outside the academy, Badgett draws widely on the experiences of other engaged academics, providing a clear philosophical basis for her arguments and offering a wealth of worthwhile and practical suggestions. Getting the big picture means seeing the different facets of the debate in context, understanding the arguments put forward by the full range of participants, and digging down to see the underlying assumptions, framings and contexts that structure the debate. In this, as in all sections of the book, you will find detailed guidance on how to achieve each of these objectives.

Academics are (or should be) effective networkers in their own sphere, so extending a network into wider worlds should not be too difficult. Badgett emphasises that one of the keys to influencing policy is to persuade others to add us to their networks. She recommends plotting out our evolving network and its interconnections on paper, with the desired policy outcome at the centre. Building a good network apparently has similarities with successful gardening, although not all of us may find this encouraging.

Three major chapters address communication with the world beyond the academy. Badgett bears in mind the observation of Frank Luntz, a conservative political activist, that “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” And what do people often hear when academics speak? Jargon. Badgett offers tips on how to speak what Andrew Marr has called “fluent human” and discusses both traditional and social media. I found the chapter on social media (written in association with Scott Swenson) particularly valuable and interesting. I was more than impressed that Lawrence Lessig, a law academic, raised $11 million (£7.7 million) through Tumblr and used the proceeds to campaign against the role of big money in US elections. I became convinced that most academics would benefit from a presence on Twitter, if only for the discipline of attempting to say something worthwhile in 140 characters.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to take sides in public debates. You can choose to play the valuable role that environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr has described as the “honest broker” of policy alternatives, or become what educational policy scholar Sara Goldrick-Rab (quoted by Badgett here) calls a scholar-activist, rather than an advocate. “An advocate begins with a core and guiding goal – not a theory – and pushes for changes to achieve that goal. In contrast, a scholar-activist begins with a set of testable assumptions, subjects these to rigorous research, and once in possession of research findings seeks to translate those findings into action.”

Taking one’s research and its implications into the wider world can be uncomfortable. Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s 2010 study of issues such as global warming, pollution and tobacco use, details powerful commercial and political forces’ unscrupulous efforts to obscure inconvenient truths. Badgett’s prescriptions for dealing with assaults on one’s research, both fair and unfair, are thoughtful and largely practical. I’m not sure how easy many of us will find it to grow a thicker skin, as she recommends. However, her arguments in favour of having a strong ethical basis for what we do must surely be right.

Although The Public Professor’s context is unwaveringly American, most readers will find it easy to translate the examples into the relevant local or national context. Badgett’s methods are surely applicable in any open society. Universities and scholars in all disciplines face increasing pressure to defend the value and relevance of our work to society and to justify the investment that we receive from students and the public purse. The introduction of impact statements in the recent research excellence framework is but one very visible example of a global trend. This relatively short book shows one way in which academics can justify our privileged position and enhance the quality of research and teaching in the process. The Public Professor should be required reading.

Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry, Nottingham Trent University, and former chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.


The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World
By M. V. Lee Badgett
New York University Press, 256pp, £64.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9781479815029 and 861392
Published 15 January 2016

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Print headline: Tracing paper skin? Toughen up

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