Dear Nicholas Kristof, We Are Here, Too!

21 February 2014

Rachel M. Gisselquist

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published a scathing critique of the role of academics in public debate. ‘Professors, We Need You!’ he moaned, noting that ‘some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates’. He criticized in particular the practical irrelevance of the topics studied by many academics, the use of arcane quantitative models and theoretical constructs, and the ‘turgid prose’.  

Kristof was particularly critical of my field—political science—noting that it ‘seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide’. (Interestingly, he was less critical of economics—which, with all due respect to my colleagues, is at least as guilty of studying ‘irrelevant’ topics, using arcane quantitative models and constructs, and bad writing.)

The academic blogosphere quickly lit up in response. One of my favorites is by Erik Voeten and published in the ‘The Monkey Cage’, a blog on political science research that now appears in the Washington Post, surely an example of the type of engaged academia Kristof is missing: ‘Dear Nicholas Kristof, We are Right Here!’

UNU-WIDER Research

Dear Mr. Kristof, We are right here, too! As most WIDERAngle readers know, UNU-WIDER works on policy-relevant questions affecting the living conditions of the world’s poorest people, providing a global forum for professional interaction by scholars and practitioners. PhDs and university faculty from our network in fact author most of our publications. The sort of public engagement that Kristof calls for was also explicitly part of our last research programme, ‘ReCom–Research and Communication on Foreign Aid’ (2011-2013). We think that strengthening the relationship between research and policy in development is important and, collectively, we have spent a lot of time wrestling with how to make it better.

UNU-WIDER’s network has traditionally been dominated by economists, but clearly major issues in contemporary development policy—such as fragility, governance, inequality, peace and security—beg for political analysis, and this is reflected in UNU-WIDER’s current work. A number of political science faculty members have contributed to recent UNU-WIDER studies, alongside colleagues from economics and other disciplines. Democratic Trajectories in Africa: Unravelling the Impact of Foreign Aid, an edited book by Danielle Resnick (our former colleague) and Nicolas van de Walle (Cornell University), for instance, draws on in-depth case studies by scholars of Benin, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia. Another collection that I am editing on ‘Aid and Institution-Building in Fragile States: Findings from Comparative Cases’ draws on rigorous analyses of state-building from the Second World War to the present—from Southern Europe to Iraq and Afghanistan, from the quintessential failed state of Somalia to ‘neotrusteeship’ in Kosovo and East Timor, and beyond. In another collaborative project with my colleague Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, we explore the contributions and limits of experimental methods in analysing ‘what works’ to improve government performance, bringing together faculty who have worked extensively on related topics. 

Academia and Public Engagement

Like many of my colleagues, I agree broadly with Kristof that scholars—and perhaps especially political scientists—should contribute more effectively to public debate and that such contributions should be rewarded more in academia. But this is hardly a new point, and Kristof’s version of it missed a lot.

For one, it seemed ignorant of a lot of good, policy- and publicly-engaged work by academics. As Daniel Drezner, a professor who also happens to be an editor at Foreign Policy, tweeted, ‘It’s not that I think @NickKristof is totally wrong … It’s just that things are trending for the better, not worse’. 

It also missed some major institutional efforts to encourage greater public engagement. Among the most explicit examples—for good or bad—is the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework, the UK’s system for assessing the quality of its higher education institutions, which includes ‘impact’ among its three core assessment criteria.

Relatedly, Kristof should perhaps have placed more blame on institutional structures that discourage public engagement by academics, and less blame on academics themselves. Academia is full of pre-tenure and adjunct faculty who would love to be public intellectuals but also know that public writing probably will not help them to get and keep (academic) jobs.

Furthermore, many academics take very seriously their role in teaching—challenging their students to think about the world and thus contributing to public engagement, even if their own writing never makes the mainstream press.


Another big problem I see with Kristof’s critique is that it glosses over some real tensions between academia and public engagement. 

First, social scientists take a lot of flak for not addressing issues in ways that non-social scientists can understand, I think because the broad issues we study are so accessible—everyone thinks about power, politics, social relations, and the economy. We tend to accept it (‘we should all be better writers’), but it isn’t really fair. Who criticizes the New England Journal of Medicine for its Latinate jargon, fancy statistics, and clinical exposition? We too have professional, specialist discussions. Unlike Kristof, I don’t think it is a bad thing that the American Political Science Review is not very interesting or intelligible to a general audience. There are many other outlets for more accessible scholarship.

Second, a PhD isn’t supposed to prepare you to be a public intellectual, even though it can help and many public intellectuals have them. PhDs aspire to advance the frontiers of knowledge in their fields. This often requires intense focus on a particular topic. Public intellectuals tend to have a more generalist bent. I think it is fair to say that leading public intellectuals are rarely also leading scholars in their fields and this is not just because academia tends not to reward public engagement, but because public engagement can require a different energy and attention than deep scholarly work. They can be at odds.

Third, academics also do not have to speak directly to current policy questions or controversies for their work to be relevant to ‘today’s great debates’. Scholarly work can be about ‘something small that makes all the difference’. It can change the way that we think and speak about the world. It can bring to life circumstances and dynamics that inspire opinion leaders. It can provide new information, models, and hypotheses about how the world works upon which policy makers can draw.

Rachel M. Gisselquist, a Research Fellow at @UNU-WIDER, has recently joined the Twitterverse.  Find her @RGisselquist as she learns the ropes.

WIDERAngle newsletter
February 2014
ISSN 1238-9544