German academics resist ‘reductive’ public communication plans

Germany’s research ministry wants academia to provide the public with ‘answers’, but scholars say it’s not that simple

December 16, 2019
Source: Getty
False perspective: 13 German scholarly associations, largely in the humanities and social sciences, have criticised the approach as reductive

German academics have spoken out against a new government push for better communication with the public, arguing that it risks reducing scholarship to the mere production of “useful facts”.

Last month, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research unveiled measures to boost engagement, including making communication an “integral part” of its funding decisions and setting up an online tool to measure which strategies work best.

Launching the plans, minister Anja Karliczek said she wanted a “culture shift” in academia that would result in researchers providing “answers” in often fact-free public debate.

In response, 13 German scholarly associations, largely in the humanities and social sciences, have criticised the approach as reductive.

“It would be fatal to reduce science to useful fact production. It would also be fatal to make false promises to the public in this respect,” they say in a joint statement.

In addition to building evidence-based knowledge, research must also produce “complexity, doubt, tentativeness and new questions”, argue the organisations, which include national associations for historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists.

“You can’t go out there and promise that if we follow scientific evidence, everything will be fine,” said Paula-Irene Villa, professor of sociology and gender studies at LMU Munich, and one of the authors of the statement.

“I would agree that it is important to strengthen the relevance of fact, evidence and knowledge, especially for policymakers,” she said. However, “the problem is this reductionist view”, she added.

The science of climate change, for example, was “very clear”, but in response, “should Germany subsidise more train and tram travel and tax more strongly flying? On this concrete level, things are not so clear any more,” Professor Villa warned.

On other questions, such as whether inequality was worse today than it was a century ago, sociologists could often provide no clear answer, she said – much depended on what was measured.

More broadly, Professor Villa pushed back against what she described as the global spread of a sometimes “naive enthusiasm” for engaging the public.

“The main purpose of research is research, full stop,” she said. Although “research necessarily interacts with audiences and actors”, its legitimacy does not rest on whether it can be understood by the public, Professor Villa argued.

Another concern of researchers is that an emphasis on public understanding could “discriminate” against topics that attract little public interest, endangering Germany’s constitutionally enshrined freedom of research, the statement says.

Since she was appointed minister last year, Ms Karliczek has made public engagement a priority. In one of her first interviews after taking office, the conservative politician called on German academics to explain their work in less highbrow and more widely read publications.

A spokeswoman for the ministry said science communication plans would be required in future grant applications.

The specific type and amount of funding for science communication would vary depending on the call, she said. “A fixed quota is not planned,” she added in a statement.

“The main actors in science communication will remain the scientists themselves,” the spokeswoman explained. “In their project ideas, they can develop innovative concepts for communicating their research results to society.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: German scholars resist ‘reductive’ communication plans

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Reader's comments (1)

"German academics have spoken out against a new government push for better communication with the public, arguing that it risks reducing scholarship to the mere production of “useful facts”." Or apparently production of potentially biased 'facts' to suit a political agenda. Good luck to the academic who fights such things, too many 'facts' are anything but a 'fact'.

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