Could it be that the digerati are beginning to wonder about the origins of such ‘innovations’ as video communication, AI, remote work, and more? Are they discovering that all these innovations have a long history in the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs)?
These questions arose as I’ve become aware of a variety of initiatives to better document the history of communication and information technologies and the people associated with the communication revolution. It is arguable that most individuals focused on new advances in media and ICTs have no historical perspective at all. I’ve called it ‘innovation amnesia’. Some think video is new, for example, but have little or no knowledge of the many efforts to launch video communication since the late 1960s.
Most recently I was interviewed by the individuals behind the development of Archives of IT. These developers are realizing that many of those associated with the emergence of information technologies have either passed away or may not be around many more years. The Archives are collecting oral histories of those closely associated with IT and the IT industry in the UK and worldwide. As they began to look at those studying the societal implications of IT, they interviewed me, as the founding director of the OII, among a number of others to begin tracking its study. See: https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/professor-bill-dutton/
This experience reminded me of my own work in archiving the papers of James H. Quello, one of the longest serving members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When I was Director of the Quello Center at MSU I put together the James H. Quello Archives, which is being supported and up-dated by the Quello Center.
Similarly, an old colleague from my USC days (A. Michael Noll) has assembled an archive of William O. ‘Bill’ Baker, who was the vice president for research at Bell Telephone Laboratories from 1955 to 1973, retiring as Chairman in 1980. Bell Labs was critical to the revolution in communication technologies.
Teaching and research could be supported by new materials such as these. Might these be traces of a new interest in the history of ICTs and their implications for society? Possibly, and for two basic reasons.
First, there is an increasingly interesting and cumulative history to document.
Secondly, the gathering of information and conduct of interviews, for example, are increasingly possible anywhere in the world. ICTs have democratized the process of archiving so we no longer have to rely only on special collections in libraries. Individuals and civic minded associations have the wherewithal to archive.
So, as we see people talking about old enduring topics as if they are genuinely new, more of us can see the value of better documenting and preserving the social dynamics of past successes and failures – and we have the means to do it – archiving.
The Value of Academics Working with Government: Lessons from Collaboration on Cybersecurity
William H. Dutton with Carolin Weisser Harris
Six of the benefits of academics collaborating with government include realising the value of: 1) complementary perspectives and knowledge sets; 2) different communication skills and styles; 3) distributing the load; 4) different time scales; 5) generating impact; and 6) tackling multifaceted problems.
Our Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre (GCSCC) at Oxford University recently completed a short but intense period of working with a UK Government team focused on cybersecurity capacity building with foreign governments. In one of our last meetings around our final reports, we had a side discussion – not part of the report – about the differences between academic researchers and our colleagues working in government departments. Of course, some academics end up in government and vice versa, but individuals quickly adapt to the different cultures and working patterns of government or academia if they choose to stay.
For example, the differences in our time horizons were not controversial, as some of us on the academic team have been working on particular issues for decades while our government colleagues are focused on the start and finish a project over a short, finite time, such as lasting one year or even less. These different time horizons are only one of many other challenges tied to the very different ways of working, but what about the benefits?
What is the value of fostering more academic-government collaboration? Here we were not as quick to come up with clear answers. But collaboration between academia and government is more difficult than working within one’s own institutional context. There must be benefits to justify the greater commitments of time and effort to collaborate. On reflection, and from our experience, a number of real benefits and taken-for-granted assumptions come to mind. The all ways to realise the benefits of:
Complementary Perspectives and Knowledge Sets
Our focus on cybersecurity, for example, is inherently tied to both academic research and policy and practice. By bringing actors together across academia and government, there is less risk of working in a way that is blind to the perspectives of other sectors. It might be impossible to shape policy and practice if the academic research is not alert to the issues most pertinent to government. Likewise, governments cannot establish credible policy or regulatory initiatives without an awareness of the academic controversies and consensus around relevant concepts and issues.
2. Different Communication Skills and Styles
Academic research can get lost in translation if academics are not confronted with what resonates well with governmental staff and leadership. What is understood and misunderstood in moving across academic and government divides? Think of the acronyms used in government versus academia. How can assumptions and work be better translated to each set of participants? Working together forces a confrontation with these communication issues, as well as the different styles in the two groups. Comparing the slides prepared by academics with those of government staff can provide a sense of people coming from different planets, not just different sectors.
3. Distributing the Load – Time to Read Everything?
My academic colleagues noticed that many in the government simply did not have the time to read extremely long and often dense academic papers or books, much less to write a blog about collaborative research! It was far better to have brief executive oriented briefing papers. Better yet would be a short 10-minute oral explanation of any research or a discussion in the form of a webinar. Do they need to know the finest details of a methodology, or to simply have a basic understanding of the method and trust that the specific methodology followed was state of the practice, done professionally, or peer reviewed? Can they quickly move to: What did they find? Being able to trust the methods of the academics saved an enormous amount of time for the governmental participants.
Likewise, did the academics want to take the time to read very long and detailed administrative reports and government documents? Clearly, they also appreciated the brief summary or distillation of any texts that were not central to the study. Unless academics were focused on organizational politics and management, they often do not need to know why the government has chosen to support or not support particular work, but trust that there is a green light to go ahead, and their colleagues in government will try to keep the work going.
So, the two groups read and were interested in reading and hearing different kinds of reports and documentation, about different issues, and at different levels. Working together, they could then cover more ground in the time of the project and better understand each other’s needs and what each could contribute to the collaboration.
4. Different Time Scales
As mentioned above, another aspect of time was the different time scales of academic research versus governmental studies. One of our colleagues had been working on Internet studies for over four decades, but a short governmental study could draw easily on that investment in time. Everyone did not need to spend decades on research.
Academics can’t change the focus of their research too rapidly without losing their basis of expertise. The cycle of attention in government may move towards the interests of an academic from time to time and then it is important to connect governmental staff with the right researchers to take advantage of their different time scales.
The different time scales do not undermine collaboration, but they put a premium on being able to connect governmental research with relevant academic research that is at a level and at a time at which the findings can be valuable to policy or practice. Academics cannot chase policy issues as they will always be late to the debate. But governmental researchers can find researchers doing relevant work that is sufficiently mature to inform the questions faced by the government.
5. Generating Impact
Academics are increasingly interested in having an impact, which has been defined as ‘having an effect, benefit, or contribution to economic, social, cultural, and other aspects of the lives of citizens and society beyond contributions to academic research’ (Hutchinson 2019). Is their research read, understood, or acted upon? Does it make a difference to the sector of relevance to their research? Working directly with government can enhance the likelihood of governmental actors being aware of and reactive to academic research. Collaboration does not guarantee greater productivity (Lee and Bozeman 2005). However, it has the potential to support the greater dissemination of the research across government and create greater awareness of the evidence behind the policy advice of academic researchers.
Of course, governments do not simply write reports to tick boxes. They also wish to have an impact on policy or practice. Working with academics can help gain insights and credibility that can make reports more novel, interesting, and meaningful for enacting change in policy and practice. They can also gain a better sense of the limits of academic research as researchers explain the lack of evidence in some areas and the needs for additional work.
6. Tackling Multifaceted Problems
Cybersecurity is not only tied to academia and government. Many other actors are involved. We found that our partners in government had different contacts with different networks of actors than we had and vice versa. Putting together these networks of actors enabled us to better embed the multiplicity of actors – other governments, civil society, non-governmental organizations, business and industry, and experts in cybersecurity – in our joint work.
The potential benefits are many, but there are risks. Participants need to care a great deal about the common work and be committed to the area in order to overcome the challenges. That said, the different time frames, communication styles, and more that confront collaboration between government and academia not only can be addressed but also bring some benefits to the collaboration.
Cybersecurity is one of many policy areas that requires engagement with various stakeholders, and for meaningful engagement to develop you need to build trustful relationships. Projects like ours where partners from different stakeholder groups (in this case academia and government) work together can enable building those trustful relationships and strengthen the potential for others to trust the outputs of joint projects.
Looking into one of my College’s hallway recycling bins, as one does, I found a fourth edition paperback of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Arguably, for my generation, as Strunk died the year before I was born, this has been one of the most useful and inspiring books for any young writer or anyone seriously interested in writing.
Across most academic fields, researchers are increasingly focused on outreach to relevant practitioner and policy communities. It can sharpen their sense of the key questions but also enable their research to have greater application and impact. In contrast, within the field of cybersecurity, policy and practitioners from governmental, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like the World Bank, and business and industry are more dominant in the production of research. Academic researchers play a relatively less active role. That said, research on cybersecurity could be greatly enhanced if a larger and more multidisciplinary collection of academic researchers could be engaged to focus on issues of cybersecurity and build collaborative relationships with the policy and practitioner communities.
Why is this the case, and what could be done to correct it?
The Dynamics Limiting Academia’s Role in Cybersecurity
I am but one of a growing set of multidisciplinary researchers with a focus on cybersecurity. The field is clearly engaging some top researchers and scholars from a variety of fields, evidenced by colleagues and centers at prominent universities, a growing number of journals and publications, and a dizzying number of events and conferences on topics within the field. Stellar academics, such as Professor David Clark at MIT, Professor Sadie Creese at Oxford University, and Bruce Schneier, a Fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, are strong examples. I would add Gabriella Coleman, a chaired professor at McGill University, and Professor Patrick Burkart at Texas A&M, to the list, even though they might not identify themselves as cybersecurity researchers. Many others could be added.
Nevertheless, compared with other fields, cybersecurity research appears to be dominated more by the practitioner and policy communities. Cybersecurity is not a discipline but a multidisciplinary field of study. But it remains less multidisciplinary and more anchored within the computer sciences than some related fields, such as Internet studies as one comparator with which I am familiar. A number of possible explanations for the different multidisciplinary balance of this field come to mind.
First, it is a relatively new field of academic research. It was preceded by studies of computer security, which were more computer science centric as they were more focused on technical advances in security systems. The development of shared computing systems and the Internet in particular, has greatly expanded the range of users and devices linked to computer systems, reaching over 4 billion users in 2020. In many respects, the Internet drove the transition from computer security to cybersecurity research and is therefore understandably young in relation to other academic fields of study.
Secondly, the concept of cybersecurity carries some of the baggage of its early stages. While the characterisations evoked by concepts are often crude, the term often conjures up images of men in suits employed by large institutions trying to keep young boys out of their systems. My MSU colleague, Ruth Shillair, reminded me of the 1983 movie War Games. It is based around a young hacker getting into the backdoor of a major military computer system in ways that threatened to launch a world war, but which left the audience cheering for the young haker.
Today, big mainframe computers are less central than are the billions of devices in households and business and industry and governments across the world. Malicious users, rather than a child accidentally entering the backdoor of a military complex, are the norm. Yet cybersecurity carries some of this off-putting imagery from its early days into the present.
Thirdly, it is an incredibly important field of research for which there is great demand. Many rising academics in the field of cybersecurity are snapped up by business, industry and governmental headhunters for lucrative positions rather than by academia.
These are only a few of many reasons for the relative lack of a stronger multidisciplinary research community. Whatever initiatives might enhance its multidisciplinary make-up might also bring more academics as well as more academic disciplines into the study of cybersecurity. How could this be changed?
What Needs to Be Done?
First, academics involved with research on cybersecurity need to do more to network among themselves. This is somewhat of a chicken and egg problem as when there are relatively few academics in a field it seems less important to network with each other. However, until the field comes together to better define the field and its priorities for research, it is harder for it to flourish. Similarly, there are so many pulls to work with practitioners and the policy communities in this area that academic collaboration may seem like a distraction. It is not, as it is essential for the field to mature as an academic field of study.
Secondly, the field needs to identify and promote academic research on cybersecurity that address big questions with major implications for policy and practice. On this point, some of the research at Oxford’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) has made a difference for nations across the world. For example, the research demonstrates that nations that have enhanced their cybersecurity capacity building efforts have made a serious improvement in the experiences of their nations’ Internet users. But this work is one of many examples of work that is meeting needs in this new area of technological and organizational advances.
Thirdly, national governments need to place a greater priority on building this field of academia along with building their own cybersecurity capacities. Arguably, in the long run, a stronger academic field in cybersecurity will help nations advance cybersecurity capacity, such as by creating a larger pool of expertise and thought leadership in this area.
This would be possible through a number of initiatives, from simply taking a leadership role in identifying the importance of the field to encouraging the public research councils and other funding bodies to consider the development of grant support for multidisciplinary research on cybersecurity.
For example, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) generated early funding for what became the Programme on Information and Communication Technologies (PICT). The establishment of PICT helped to draw leading researchers, such as the late Roger Silverstone, into the study of the social aspects of information and communication technologies. Such pump-priming helped put the UK in an early strategic international position in research on the societal aspects of the Internet and related digital media.
What factors are constraining the more rapid and widespread development of this field? What could be done to accelerate and deepen its development?
There are a host of other issues around whether policy makers and practitioners would value collaboration with academics, given that their time scales and methodologies can be so dramatically different. That is for another blog, but in the interim, I’d value your thoughts on whether you agree on the need and approaches to further develop the multidisciplinary study of cybersecurity within academia.
 See: Creese, S., Shillair, R., Bada, M., Reisdorf, B.C., Roberts, T., and Dutton, W. H. (2019), ‘The Cybersecurity Capacity of Nations’, pp. 165-179 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 My thanks to Caroline Weisser Harris for suggesting a focus on this question of why practitioners and policy makers might or might not value collaboration with academia.
Way too much talk, research, and handwringing are all about how to stop people from seeing or believing disinformation, such as the latest conspiracy theories. But pushing governments and platforms or anyone to censor information is not only ineffective in the digital age, but also likely to be dysfunctional – such as in activating the proverbial Barbara Streisand effect. You will only generate more interest in the information you want to censor. Moreover, you will not communicate the facts, narrative, or truth, as you see it.
Alternatively, think about two other ways to grapple with misinformation.
First, place greater trust in people – Internet users, for example, to be more intelligent and more discerning. Almost every empirical study of how people actually use the Internet and related digital technologies like social media indicates that most people who are interested in a topic will look at multiple sources of information.* If they are uncertain or suspicious of one source, they will double or triple check the information, such as by using search or going to a trusted source, such as Wikipedia or an official Web site. Most theories that frighten us about being caught in an echo chamber or filter bubble of false information are technologically deterministic and do not look carefully at how people actually look for and use information. It is clear that the proponents of censorship almost always assume that people are stupid. Only they know how to find the correct information!
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, put more effort into communicating the right news, information, or facts, rather than trying to block other information. It seems increasingly clear to me that too many government agencies and academic institutions – as two examples – are too complacent about reaching their audiences. They might set up a Web site, and post a report online, but not really put major effort into reaching out to ensure that a larger audience is aware of the work, can access it, and understand its message. Think about popular conspiracy theories, like QAnon. They have an evolving narrative, a distributed network of people sharing and helping to distribute their messages. They are motivated and creative in getting this information out. Legitimate and more authoritative sources of information need to be just as clever, if not cleverer and more motivated and ingenious in figuring how a narrative and various outlets will help them reach their audiences in not only digestible but compelling ways.
In the case of QAnon, I agree with a recent post by Abby Ohlheiser that it’s ‘too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans’.** But it is not too late to stop being complacent about how you and your colleagues and organization communicate in this digital world. You need to be creative, smart and motivated to reach audiences. You may be an authority in your own eyes, but few people will come to you as a source of information. Putting something online won’t suffice. If you or your unit has important information, such as about protecting yourself in a pandemic, then you need to reach out to audiences that matter using all the tools available on Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and via the press.
As hypocrite in chief, at least I am writing this blog. But far more would need to be done in order to communicate this message. Agree?
* For example, see: Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An earlier version of this paper is online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960697
The fight against conspiracy theories and other fake news about the coronavirus crisis is receiving more help from the social media and other tech platforms, as a number of thought leaders have argued. However, in my opinion, a more important factor has been more successful outreach by governmental, industry, and academic researchers. Too often, the research community has been too complacent about getting the results of their research to opinion leaders and the broader public. Years ago, I argued that too many scientists held a ‘trickle down’ theory of information dissemination. Once they publish their research, their job is done, and others will read and disseminate their findings.
Even today, too many researchers and scientists are complacent about outreach. They are too focused on publication and communication with their peers and see outreach as someone else’s job. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that governments and mainstream, leading researchers, can get their messages out if they work hard to do so. In the UK, the Prime Minister’s TV address, and multiple press conferences have been very useful – the last reaching 27 million viewers in the UK, becoming one of the ‘most watched TV programmes ever’, according to The Guardian. In addition, the government distributed a text message to people across the UK about it rules during the crisis. And leading scientists have been explaining their findings, research, and models to the public, with the support of broadcasters and social media.
If scientists and other researchers are complacent, they can surrender the conversation to creative and motivated conspiracy theorists and fake news outlets. In the case of Covid-19, it seems to be that a major push by the scientific community of researchers and governmental experts and politicians has shown that reputable sources can be heard over and amongst the crowd of rumors and less authoritative information. Rather than try to censor or suppress social media, we need to step-up efforts by mainstream scientific communities to reach out to the public and political opinion leaders. No more complacency. It should not take a global pandemic crisis to see that this can and should be done.
 Marietje Schaake (2020), ‘Now we know Big Tech can tackle the ‘infdemic’ of fake news’, Financial Times, 25 March: p. 23.
 Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.
Times have changed. In the early years of my career as an academic, the poster session used to be sort of a second class offer for presenting at an academic conference. That is no longer the case. Newer generations of academics are trained and attuned to creating posters and infographics to explain and communicate their work. In many cases, it seems like the poster and poster sessions are the preferred mode of presentation, such as compared to sitting on a panel or making a traditional presentation of an academic paper, which is often a set of slides that could be incorporated into a poster.
Anecdotally, I have seen the rising prominence of poster sessions across a wide range of academic conferences I’ve attended over the years, in communication, political science, computer science, and communication policy, such as TPRC. For example, it is increasingly common for a time slot of a conference to be devoted to poster sessions, and not compete with other presentations. I can also see a leap in the sophistication and visualization quality evident in poster sessions. More software, templates, training, and guidelines are being developed to refine posters in an increasingly competitive field.
Younger academics are more attuned to the creation of posters, but I am sure they will continue to develop them as they rise in the academic ranks. I think it is more of a cohort issue than a status issue in academia. But think of the added value of poster sessions to the presenters and their audiences.
From the presenter’s perspective, rather than have one shot to stand in front of a large audience to formally present a paper, they can have multiple opportunities to present the same material to smaller groups or even a single individual. All presentations help you refine your ideas and the logic of your argument, so I would think multiple iterations are even more beneficial. And aware presenters can gauge their presentation to the particular interests and questions of the specific audience they have at the moment. It is wonderful when a member of the audience introduces themselves to you after a panel, but you can introduce your self to many more individuals and network in more effective ways in smaller sessions.
From the audience’s perspective, everyone has been in an academic presentation that did not meet one’s expectations. They misunderstood the title, or came for another paper, and were polite enough to listen to others. But in the case of a poster session, audiences stroll through rows of posters and are able to locate particular topics and presentations of genuine interest. Moreover, the opportunity for some serendipity, finding interest in a topic you had not previously considered, is far more likely. Presenters can spend a few or many minutes not only listening but discussing the topic with the audience. It is truly an efficient as well as an effective presentational style.
Shame on me for not proposing a poster yet in my career. But I am not so blind that I cannot see that the poster has risen as a medium for academic communication and increasingly as a preferred rather than a second choice for leading academics. Universities and research institutes need to support students and faculty who choose this option.
Here is a nice example of a useful, infographic packed poster via Chris Bode’s Twitter:
It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.
To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*
One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.
However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.
In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.
A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.
In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.
First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.
Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.
Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.
Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.
Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.
Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.
The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.
** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule
Wonderful to see a chapter by me, Frank Hangler, and Ginette Law, entitled ‘Broadening Conceptions of Mobile and Its Social Dynamics’ in Chan, J. M., and Lee, F. L. F. (2017), Advancing Comparative Media and Communication Research (London: Routledge), pp. 142-170. It arrived at my office today.
The volume evolved out of an international conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. But the paper’s origins date back to a project that I did during my last months at Oxford in 2014, and early in my tenure at MSU, as the Principal Investigator with Ginette and Frank, of a project called ‘The Social Shaping of Mobile Internet Developments and their Implications for Evolving Lifestyles’, supported by a contract from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd to Oxford University Consulting. This led first to a working paper done jointly with colleagues from Oxford University and Huawei: Dutton, William H. and Law, Ginette and Groselj, Darja and Hangler, Frank and Vidan, Gili and Cheng, Lin and Lu, Xiaobin and Zhi, Hui and Zhao, Qiyong and Wang, Bin, Mobile Communication Today and Tomorrow (December 4, 2014). A Quello Policy Research Paper, Quello Center, Michigan State University.. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534236 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2534236
The project moved me into a far better understanding and appreciation of the significance of mobile, but also its varied and evolving definitions. Before this paper, I was skeptical of academic work centered on mobile as I considered it one area of Internet studies. However, by the end of the project, I became convinced that mobile communication is a useful and complex area for research, policy and practice, complementary to Internet studies. In the working paper, we forecast the disappearance of the mobile phone device, which seemed far-fetched when we suggested this to Huawei, but is now becoming a popular conception. So look forward to a future in which that awkward scene of people walking along looking at their mobile will come to an end, in a good way.
This paper illustrates the often circuitous route of academic work from conception to publication, which is increasingly international and collaborative. So thanks to the editors, my co-authors, Oxford Consulting, and Huawei for your support and patience. Academic time is another world. But it was all worth doing and the wait.
On my last trip to China, I was meeting with a former social science colleague at Tsinghua University, Professor JIN Jianbin, who received a new research grant to study public perspectives on science, such as around research on genetically modified crops. Our conversation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) quickly touched on a variety of other issues, such as the public’s acceptance of research on climate change, on which sizeable proportions of the public in China, the US and other nations often dismiss, if not distrust, scientific opinion.
Of course, some level of public distrust of scientific authorities is not new. I recall some famous work by political scientists in the US who studied the politics of conspiracy theories around the fluoridation of water that was prominent across American communities since the 1950s, but which – surprisingly – carries on to this day. So while it is not new, distrust of the political motivations behind scientific opinion is arguably growing.
Some indicators have suggested that diffuse public support for scientific institutions is not declining. However, there is some limited and more recent evidence that universities and academics are being perceived as more partisan. And anecdotally, science is increasingly questioned as biased by researchers who are claimed to be in the pockets of the sponsors of their research, illustrated by controversies over pharmaceutical research.
Such assaults on the integrity of science have led universities and research institutions to place a higher priority on the prevention and detection of conflicts of interest rising in the conduct of research. Finally, symptoms of this growing distrust seem evident in the divisions over a rising number of issues, with GMOs, climate change, vaccinations, and evolution, being among the more prominent. Perhaps the controversies surrounding science simply reflect the many issues that have broad public implications, such as for the digital economy or public health, while issues such as the moon landing were more removed from immediate public impact on the redistribution of resources.
The bad news is that these controversies are likely to slow progress, such as on efforts to reduce man made climate change. In some cases these controversies are dangerous, such as in leading parents not to vaccinate their school children.
However, there might be some positive outcomes here, if not good news. One positive outcome of this developing problem might be that scientists will place a greater priority on better explaining their work to a wider public. Already, the study of science communication is a burgeoning field around the world, illustrated by new research being launched by my colleague JIN Jianbin, Professor of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University in Beijing. And an increasing number of research councils and foundations stress the importance of public outreach.
Of course, scientists explain their research findings and their implications as a matter of practice. Not to be forgotten or dismissed is perhaps the most effective albeit long-term form of science communication, which is teaching in colleges and universities. Yet there are questions about whether top scientists, whatever their field, are as closely involved in teaching as they could be. For example, my former university, the University of Southern California, placed a priority on putting top senior scholars into the entry level undergraduate courses, which I thought was brilliant, but which is exceptional.
But arguably, most communication about scientific issues remains focused on peer-to-peer rather than public facing communication. Peer-to-peer communication is conducted through journal publications and academic conferences and presentations. And when public facing, it is often limited to top-down or what I have called ‘trickle-down’ science, with scientists expecting their publications to be read and interpreted by others, and not themselves – the primary researchers.
However, and here I could be wrong, it seems that the worse possible development might be what I see as a trend toward scientific persuasion, often based on appeals to authority and scientific consensus or by lobbying, such as through petitions, rather than by effective communication of research. Any scientist is quick to dismiss or place less credibility in appeals to authority. Why should the public be different? Where is the evidence? And once scientists move into the role of a lobbyist, petitioner, or activist, they diminish their credibility as scientists or researchers. Surely this kind of context collapse, when a scientist becomes political, or a doctor runs for a political office, invites the public to view scientists and academics as partisan political actors rather than scientific actors, and see them in ways that parallel other political actors and lobbyists.
How can scientists explain their work to a larger public? First, they need to recognize the need and value of effectively communicating their work to a broader public. This aim is rising across academia, such as in research councils insisting on research including components on outreach, and academic quality being judged increasingly by its impact. Unfortunately, this can sometimes drift into a tick box exercise in budgeting for conferences and seminars involving business and industry and the government, while serious efforts to communicate to the general public with an interest in the topic needs to be tackled directly. Academics need to guard against this tick box mentality.
Another concern is that this need for public outreach might simply lead to a greater focus on media coverage, getting the press to pick up stories on a scientist’s research. There is nothing wrong with this, universities love such coverage, and it can be helpful, but news coverage is generally overly simplistic, too often misleading, and potentially adding to the problems confronting good scientific communication. Researchers need to hold journalists and the media more accountable, and address inaccuracies or overly simplified messages in the press, cable news shows, and mass media.
Another, and a possibly more effective and more recently practical approach, is to communicate directly to the public. Join the conversation. Write reports on your research findings that are understandable to those in the educated public that might be seriously interested in your work now or in the future. You can reach opinion leaders in your areas of research, and thereby foster effective two-step flows of communication to the general public. Don’t worry about a mass audience, but aim to reach a targeted audience of those with a serious interest in your topic. When they search online for information about your topic, make sure that accessible presentations of your research will be found.
Unfortunately, too many academics are taught not to join the conversation, and to avoid blogging or writing for a general audience. Instead, they are taught to focus more than ever on only reaching the top peer reviewed journals in their field and being read and cited by their peers. As noted above, this too often leads to a weak form of trickle down science, which is not in the long-term interest of the scientific enterprise.
We should question this conventional wisdom in academia. Personally, I don’t believe there is a necessary risk to scientific publishing by also trying to communicate to a more general audience. That is what teachers do, and when researchers try to teach and communicate with their students, they can find problems with their arguments, and ways to improve how they convey their ideas.
So – scientists – offer up your best ideas to the public, not as your peers, but as smart and educated individuals who do not know about your work – even why it is relevant. Some of my most meaningful experiences with communication about my research have been exactly when I – focused on Internet studies – sat next to a physicist or mathematician over a meal who asked me about my research and vice versa. What am I working on? Why is it important? If we can do this over lunch or dinner, we can do it for a larger public online.
Perhaps this is more difficult than it sounds, but we need to accept the challenge. Arguably, the scientific challenge of the 21st century is effective communication to the larger public.