‘Lobbyists for hire’ undermine academic authority, says professor

HEC Paris’ Alberto Alemanno says academics who influence policy ‘often’ do it in return for money

June 18, 2017
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‘Merchants of doubt’: one law scholar claimed academics-turned-lobbyists are ‘paid to inject doubt into public debate’

Some politicians continue to think that society has had enough of “experts”, but for many, academics remain key in the policymaking process. However, those who leverage their position for financial return are undercutting this trust by participating in a “fake form of engagement”.

That is the view of Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor of European Union law and risk regulation at HEC Paris, who believes that academics are well positioned to serve as “citizen lobbyists”, a theme he explores in Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society.

In the book, published last month by Icon Books, Professor Alemanno argues that lobbying has been “monopolised (even hijacked)” by “organised interests” of for-profit corporations. Citizen lobbyists, he contends, can turn the tables by adopting the tools employed by corporate lobbyists to press for change in areas and causes that mean something to them.

Academics, he writes, “may also take a stance on a live policy issue and go on to influence its outcome” by “leveraging their authority as credible and apparently independent authorities”.

However, members of the public seeing such interventions are “often unaware of the financial relationships” between academics and the companies for which they testify.

“Academics who lobby today, often they do it because they have a financial return,” Professor Alemanno told Times Higher Education. “They are almost a form of ‘astroturfing’, because you fake a form of engagement by leveraging and monetising your reputation.

“Most of the academics who engage today, they don’t do it on a pro bono basis, they do it for money. This is not academic lobbying.”

In his book, Professor Alemanno refers to these types of academics-turned-lobbyists as “merchants of doubt”, “insofar as they are paid to twist the truth and inject doubt into the public debate”.

These are strong accusations against his peers and, although he agrees that educational systems should “ensure academics have no incentive to make extra money by selling off their knowledge”, he insists that this is the reality.

“I think that an academic who is paid to take a stance on a policy matter that is relevant to people is engaging in a deceptive practice,” he declares. “In doing so, they’re watering down their role in society, because they’re expected to be independent.

“Quite frankly, as an academic, the value that I cherish most is independence. It’s the only thing I would never trade off. If I accept – even only once – to speak on behalf of someone else [for] money and not out of intellectual conviction, my reputation will be gone.”

Fortunately, he believes, new generations of scholars are starting to realise what is at stake from these “bad precedents”.

“These super-duper professors who accepted, at the end of their career, to take a stance on tobacco or a nasty chemical product…their reputation has been tarnished. These are good role models for what you shouldn’t do. For too long…it’s [been] normal to be an academic and a consultant – this is the default rule and it should be the opposite.”

Unscrupulous scholars aside, Professor Alemanno also worries that there is a long-standing problem when it comes to academic lobbying.

“There’s an incredible suspicion in the academic world vis-à-vis engaged academics. As soon as you start writing a book like this one, as soon as you start writing op-eds in newspapers, and popularising knowledge beyond the complexity of scientific journals…you are perceived as a traitor – someone who is diminishing the value, the moral/ethical dimension, of doing research,” he said.

“Many conservative scholars keep claiming that if you come too close to the object of study, you cannot be analytical enough.

“Frankly, I never bought this argument. There are many academics who [by getting close] to the object of their study, [their] research and scholarship has greatly benefited from it.”

He decries his own field for deterring scholars from playing a role in policymaking. Adapting doctoral law curricula in continental Europe to facilitate engagement is still “anathema” to the academy, he said, even though academics historically had a mission to “serve society”.

“Over time, as soon as specialisation became the driving force for research, the academic world [withdrew] from society and the duties that were expected from them,” he lamented, eventually giving rise to the corporate academic lobbyists.

Consequently, he sees his book as sending a message to younger scholars who might feel slightly “without purpose”, explaining to them that they can, and should, be players in this sphere.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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