Higher education Science policy
Committee Outsiders: a quick win
March 7, 2017
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In a previous post on the need to “operationalize” policy questions into a format suitable for empirical research, I ended with a call to action for the community of academic historians and philosophers of science to come down from our ivory towers, roll up our sleeves, and apply our skills to mediate negotiations taking place at the science–policy interface. But what exactly does that call to action entail? If you’re in that crowd, and are convinced by the arguments I put forward, what is it that I’m urging you to do, exactly?

For individual researchers, I’m urging you to get involved in the science policy community, which is grappling with issues familiar to humanities scholars, such as “post-truth” and communication failures. Science policy has both a policy for science angle and a science for policy angle, and I think both of those are in need of our attention. Tangible actions could include something as simple as starting to follow—and contribute to—science policy conversations online (follow some interesting people on Twitter, and use the SciSIP and SciTS listservs); starting to attend and make a fuss at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (or the annual AAAS S&T Policy Forum, for our friends south of the border); or even taking the drastic step of seeking employment in the science policy world yourself!

But there are broader organizational and cultural issues at work here as well, and these are not the responsibility of any one individual on their own to change—though of course if each of us leaves it to someone else then nothing will ever get done. This article by Torsten Menge does a nice job of proposing some responses to the evolutionary pressures currently exerting themselves on the academic sphere, and the humanistic disciplines in particular. Menge argues the humanities PhD needs to change in three ways:

  1. Faculty members need to acknowledge and start discussing the issue of re-orienting doctoral skills to non-academic applications, and break down current stigmas (e.g., list current employment of non-academic alumni, invite them to speak to current students).
  2. Departments need to provide structural support to facilitate transitions into non-academic jobs (e.g., develop a residency program).
  3. Departments, and the academic community as a whole, need to consider structural revisions to current requirements for PhD programs, the dissertation in particular (e.g., include courses on writing for non-academic audiences, divide the dissertation into modular components and make them more team based).

This set of tasks is very ambitious, so much so that I sense that many people see such a list of desiderata as completely unrealistic. Even if these are long-term goals, many with whom I’ve spoken see a list like this (or the one, equally interesting but much more detailed, assembled by IPLAI) and feel paralyzed, which means that no action whatsoever gets taken in the short term, and before you know it a long time has passed and still nothing has happened.

So here’s one tangible, simple recommendation for an academic department: Let your doctoral students have a non-academic member on their thesis committee. Presumably such an examiner should be someone of repute and in good standing in their professional community—preferably even someone with some alphabet soup after their name. This kind of bridge to the non-academic world can provide valuable insights into the applicability of knowledge and skills to non-academic contexts (for both the academic and non-academic folks!), help doctoral candidates to plant the seeds of a professional network, and later on provide an invaluable reference from someone who’s seen the world outside of academia and can speak with authority about the aptitude of a potential job candidate. It’s similar to a cross-sectoral internship, except it’s sustained rather than punctual, and requires far less formal infrastructure to implement.

This suggestion has the virtues of not being too revolutionary as a short-term measure, while still having value to offer towards a long-term vision of the humanities making their way down from the mountain top. It’s not a complete solution, but it’s somewhere to start. Bolster this change with a list of people to consider for the role, perhaps along with some resources to help students make a sensible choice, and we might just make some progress.

 

All views expressed are those of the individual author and are not necessarily those of Science-Metrix or 1science.

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About the author

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is the Senior Policy Officer at Science-Metrix in Montreal, where he puts his background in philosophy of science to good use in helping policy types and technical types to understand each other a little better every day. He also takes gleeful pleasure in unearthing our shared but buried assumptions, and generally gadfly-ing everyone in his proximity. He is interested in policy for science as well as science for policy (i.e., evidence-based decision-making), and is progressively integrating himself into the development of new bibliometric indicators at Science-Metrix to address emerging policy priorities. Before working at Science-Metrix, Brooke worked for the Canadian Federal Government. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Guelph and a BA with honours in philosophy from McGill University.

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