Academia and Activism

by Marc Geddes

I am Lecturer in British Politics now. It is not a role I expected to attain at this stage in my career (immediately post-PhD) or indeed at this age of my life (26 years old). It has sparked questions I have thought about for a while. What is the role and purpose of an academic? A specific question has been running through my mind: what is the relationship between academic research with trying to change policy and politics (and all that this implies?). It has now become commonplace to assume that academic research must be relevant. For the Research Excellence Framework and a number of research councils, publicly-funded academic research must make an ‘impact’: to the economy, to politics and policy-making, and/or to society and culture more broadly. And every researcher must demonstrate how they have or how they are going to make an impact. It is not only commonplace to assume this; it has also become unquestioned. However, the emphasis on ‘impact’ raises questions about the role of universities, and especially about the relationship between ‘the academic’ and ‘the activist’.

Good academic research is valued for being rigorous and detailed, leaving no stone unturned. It looks at an issue from every angle and discusses every possibility. But it is also seen as abstract and, too often, irrelevant to anyone outside of academia. Over the summer, for example, I had co-organised a workshop on the role of academic research for Parliament. One participant joked that one of the reasons that academic research wasn’t used a lot in parliamentary briefing notes or by select committees was simply that it was ‘too academic’. By this, they implied that it was too specific, focused on a narrow point, and analysed something in extreme (i.e. too much) detail. Ultimately, they believed academic research to be abstruse. This is a stereotype, to be sure, but one that is widely accepted by those that regularly engage with academic research. It is not surprising that one of the oft-repeated calls made by those that want to close the gap between academics and policy-makers is that academics need to write more clearly and write in a jargon-free manner.

At a policy level, the academic is expected to inform policy-making or contribute towards ‘evidence-based policy-making’. In my case, it is using my findings on select committees to inform parliamentary scrutiny of government and, in doing so, making Parliament more effective. For others, such as those involved in the natural sciences, it is to directly inform policies regarding climate change or the NHS, etc. They may do so by publishing briefing notes, submitting evidence to parliamentary inquiries, and so on. Is this a bad thing? Surely not, if the research is conducted with all the rigour that academic peer review involves.

Some take this slightly further and advocate that even better research is that which engages policy-makers at earlier stages of the research process through co-production. For example, identifying the needs of practitioners and using those as a way to guide research questions; at other times, it may mean involving practitioners at the data-gathering stage so that they have access to databases for their own purposes. The key question here, for academics, is whether they are able to maintain their critical faculties. Put differently, sceptics of co-production will ask if it is possible for scholars to both engage and work with policy-makers while simultaneously evaluate the work of those policy-makers. Will academics lose sight of critical analysis if they have a stake in, among other things, a civil servants’ report? But then, how different is this to ‘translating’ academic research for policy audiences? After all, those that want to translate their research and want to influence policy-makers with it also have a stake in how practitioners use academic findings.

Our choices about how we get involved with policy audiences, indeed if we choose to get involved at all, reveal our priorities as researchers and our views of the appropriate role of universities vis-à-vis policy, political and public audiences. In my own case, I am not just interested in Parliament; I am passionate about it. I believe that Parliament should be at the heart of British democracy and that it’s role with respect to the executive should be strengthened. Other researchers, in the natural sciences, for example, may be passionate about climate change and that drives them to translate their academic findings for practitioner audiences; others may use findings to co-produce further research or found companies to make money from those findings. The bigger point I am trying to make here is that our research and our priorities are not neutral. Our research is political.

I have studied politics for over eight years and I have formed opinions about, among other things, British membership of the EU and economic policy. Could I be expected not to have opinions about politics after this time? If this is the case, does the following question still pose problems: can I be an academic and an activist for a political organisation or political party? This is a question I ask especially for political scientists who are trying to not only study politics from afar (through texts, databases or discourse analysis, etc.) but also access politicians as part of the research process, e.g. interviewing MPs for studies of Parliament or interviewing civil servants about different policy areas. This issue has vexed me for a long time, especially with things like Twitter: I am active on the platform and make my political beliefs fairly clear. I do not think that this should be a problem (e.g. for access) because I believe there is still a difference between academic research and activism: the former is still about analysing what is happening and the consequences of those phenomena; the latter is what to do about it and, if possible, how to change things for the better. The two are obviously connected, but remain distinct. So, involvement in one should not preclude involvement in the other. If we are clear about when we are analysing and when we are acting upon our analysis, is there a problem? I ask this openly and genuinely because I am still trying to work out the right way to navigate the role of being an academic.