Translational scholarship

Part 6: A proposed solution to the public intellectual problem

The overarching issue is a simple one of supply and demand: for various reasons academics are not supplying enough information to meet the public’s demand for it. The basic solutions would be to lower the demand or increase the supply — the latter is what translational scholars could do.

Translational scholarship takes primary scientific papers written for academic journals and “translates” them into articles that are consumable by an educated, popular audience. The purpose is to be a plugin to the academic system that allows researchers to be public intellectuals without having to take time away from their research, thereby getting around the peer stigma and individual opportunity cost issues discussed earlier in this series.

Universities continue to use traditional PR rather than employ translational scholars though. Their reasoning is that PR increases student enrollment and dollars spent on a translational scholar could be better spent on research or faculty. What needs to be looked at is the potential effect of translational scholarship on money coming into the school through tuition, donors, and grants.

I personally chose my graduate program due to my exposure at a young age to the work of one academic at the program. A translational work in The New York Times had explained high-level primary research findings on how we can be tricked into undervaluing personal privacy in a way where I could easily consume them, and the professor had other public intellectual works that I could find with a simple Google search after finishing the article. One translational article and a professor’s public intellectualism brought my tuition dollars to Carnegie Mellon University rather than another institution.

Universities are advertising that they do important research, but they’re not advertising the important research itself which could be mutually beneficial for the school and the public. Academics are constantly researching topics that appeal to broad audiences that could (and occasionally do) go viral or be noticed by potential profitable individuals such as donors, students, and grant funds.

In addition to being financially rewarding, translational scholarship fulfills the intrinsic motivations of institutions and academics. The Dean of the University of Michigan School of Information stated in his welcome:

We create and share knowledge so that people will use information — with technology — to build a better world.
We are a community of scholars, dedicated teachers, students, and professional staff who share a commitment to excellence and a desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

This is a common refrain across academia: information should be shared to help people. It is continually demonstrated by academics who — depsite the forces against them — continue to publish works for popular audiences on topics they feel are important and relevant. Translational scholarship can fulfill these professors’ need to share their research without taking time away from it, potentially increase the funding and prestige of the institution, and actualize the mission of many academic institutions to inform and make a difference. As with any theory it needs to be tried, studied, and probably printed in a journal of higher education. I can only hope a translational scholar will publish that study’s findings for a popular audience.

Next: Reflelecting on this series as a public work — a meta-conclusion to the Public Intellectuals series