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Warm spring weather and global warming: If only scientists could be so persuasive

Warm spring weather can help convince Americans that global warming is happening and a problem. But scientists must change the way they talk about this subject. They must leave their ivory towers and learn to speak about climate change in a language that people understand.

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Similarly, only 9 percent of commentary pieces and letters to the editor in major US newspapers and magazines were written by university-based scientists in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The study was reported in the academic journal Organizations & Environment.

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Another study finds a dearth of articles about climate change in business, sociology, and political science publications.

Why is this? New York Times commentator David Brooks captured the nature of the problem in 2009 when he was asked on a National Public Radio broadcast if he thought any current scholars might have the same influence as mid-twentieth century intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr. He replied:

“My favorite period of American social science is the period roughly between ’55 and ’65. And this was a period when you had a series of public intellectuals who were not lost in academic disciplines, but who are much higher-brow than your average journalist.” But, he added, “the milieu that created these big daring public intellectuals just isn’t there right now.”

The fact is that today’s scientists are indeed lost to the academy. The failure begins with training in doctoral programs and continues through professional development where the constant immersion in academic seminars and journals serves to weaken scientists’ literacy in the language of public, economic, and political discourse.

Scientists limit involvement in such “outside” activities because tenure and promotion are based primarily on publication in top-tier academic journals. And the metric of quality in a large number of such journals is more about theoretical rigor and contributions to scholarship, not empirical relevance to society.

Writing for the broader media, turning out books for the commercial press, and even serving on government panels are often discouraged as “anti-intellectual” at worst and an “impractical” waste of time at best.

In the end, the system of near-term incentives for young academics is perverse. It hurts the ultimate interests of the individual scholar and the potency and relevance of the scholar’s field. It also harms society, because of the absence of critical, rigorous, data-driven voices.

In my view, few contemporary issues warrant critical analysis by problem-focused researchers more than environmental sustainability, and particularly climate change. This field of study has import, not only for the future of our natural world, but also for the future of our economy, which depends on it.

But there are signs that this model of scholarly isolation is changing. Some academic leaders have begun to call for more engagement within the public arena, and a greater balance between theoretical rigor and relevance.

To be useful, academic work must link directly to real-world problems rather than only extending a theory. This work must break down the silo-nature of academic scholarship and bridge the breadth of scientific disciplines, while also taking into account the economic and policy implications of its conclusions.

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