Six Benefits of Academics Working with Government

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? 

Drawing courtesy of Arthur Asa Berger

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:

  1. 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. 

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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.

References

Hutchinson, A. (2019), ‘Metrics and Research Impact’, pp. 91-103 in Science Libraries in the Self-Service Age. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-102033-3.00008-8

Lee, S., and Bozeman, B. (2005), ‘The Impact of Research Collaboration on Scientific Productivity’ Social Studies of Science, 35: DOI: 10.1177/0306312705052359 Online at: http://sss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/5/673

Poster-first Presentations: The Rise of Poster Sessions on Academic Research

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. 

Courtesy of Forbes.com

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:

Courtesy of Chris Bode

In Praise of Academic Engagement

I am just back from a stimulating symposium at Northwestern University focused on rethinking scholarship on online news, which led me to reflect on the value of such events, and a related seminar series we have an MSU for the Media and Information Department. Of course, the Quello Center that I direct organises many seminars, roundtables and lectures as well. While I appreciate these experiences, their very success leads me to worry about how to sustain a culture of academic engagement in the face of a developing – what should I call it – production culture. We might not fully appreciate and need to continually reinforce the significance of such opportunities for academics to engage each other face to face in constructive debates about issues and research.

Academics continue to enjoy a wonderful work environment, in my opinion, but we sometimes take these opportunities for listening to our colleagues, and discussing issues, theories and methods as just another event on our calendars. Instead, these occasions are an important part of the lifeblood of a university – something that makes the university and its academic units worth their existence. When academics are facing metrics on a number of fronts – publications, citations, outreach, impact, course evaluations, papers delivered and more – it is easy to view the seminar or conference as a distraction from the real work. You can almost hear colleagues thinking: ‘I better stay in at my computer screen and work on my paper / book / review / lecture.’

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The last thing we need is another metric for participation in seminars. That would kill the real payoffs of academic engagement, which are largely tacit learning that stimulates and broadens your own thinking about your research and teaching. The traditional Oxford colleges can bring their fellows together everyday for lunch. A social scientist will be sitting by a physicist or Buddhist scholar, and explaining their work to each other. We don’t have such regular opportunities as most American universities, but we do have the department seminars and related academic events that bring us together to engage with colleagues from different perspectives.

Fight against the academic metrics of the production culture by pushing away from the computer screen to sit down with other colleagues and discuss, critique, support and otherwise engage with their work. The more distant from your own focus, the better to connect with ideas you never imagined to be of value to you and whatever sits waiting for you on the computer screen.

Lisa Nakamura's Lecture
Lisa Nakamura’s Lecture

Thanks to my colleagues for organising the events that provide such opportunities.