Engaging with Academics: It can be free

In that last few months I have participated in a number of government conferences and workshops wherein at some point the agenda turns to the topic of ‘engaging with academics.’ During these conversations, the government folk start talking about university-government partnerships, task forces, RFPs, and expert panels. The academics all usually say the same thing: “will work for data and the ability to publish the results.”

This demonstrates a dramatic disconnect between the expectations and flexibility of both parties. Bureaucrats seem to favour overly clunky and complex arrangements, dependent on some compensation regime, that take a long time to set up, and with well-defined terms of reference. Academics, however, mostly loathe to involve universities (yes, even their own) and generally uncaring about additional income, are more interested in unfettered access to data and rights to publish, but want full freedom and flexibility to do what they want with that data.

In a nutshell, our preferences are misaligned. But, if we peel back the layers, I think we can get closer to each other than we think. The main reason for governments wanting to engage with academics and academics with them is in the spirit of evidence-based policy (insert here all jokes about decision-based evidence making). And this can occur through much less formal arrangements.

The best place to start to engage with academics is networking. First, come to our conferences (I know, yawn, but we usually drink), talk to us about our research and interests, or better yet buy us a beer or glass of wine (see my point about conferences). Many academics are active on social media (mainly twitter), and you can get to know us and our work quickly and easily from our twitter feed. And mentioning that you follow us on twitter is a great ice breaker!

Second, you can email us, but might I suggest that you instead pick up the phone. Yes, you can call us, directly. Seriously. The trouble with email is that we get a lot, especially when we are teaching. It is too easy for your email to get lost in the incessant email traffic we get. Also the email is usually something that ends with ‘call me.’ Why am I now doing the work when it is you that wishes to talk to me? I have to pay for all my long distance calls out of my own pocket so the chance I will return your call is low. Also, many government folks are worried about paper trails, especially these days. So call. If we don’t answer, as we often don’t, leave a message and say you will follow up by email. Now I know to expect your email and we can then arrange a time for a phone call!

If you call, quickly get who you are and what you are calling about out. When I hear that you are calling from the Ministry of SoandSo or the Department of Whathaveyou or even just the Government of Whatchmahooey, you are immediately elevated above probably anyone else that would call me. We warm quickly, but asking me how I am when I don’t know who you are is a good way to get hung up on. If the conversation is confidential, tell us. We understand, we do. But if you don’t tell us, don’t be surprised if it ends up in the news! And if you do call us and need to refer to us in the conversation, call us Dr. , Prof, or just use our first name. Using Mr., Ms., Mrs. Is not advisable. Trust me!

While some academics love flying to hell and gone, many of us do not. I hate spending two days to get there and back again for a 90 minute conversation. We have secure video conferencing facilities, as do you. Use them. Better yet, use skype! Most of us are more than happy to have a casual conversation with you like this. Or a formal presentation followed by chit chat. Whatever.

Once you get this kind of informal rapport going, use us for little things, like input to a briefing note, policy brief, Q&A and the like. But don’t over use us. We will work for free, to a point. If you are not sharing the note directly with us but rather asking us for evidence or to run an argument by us, I don’t see the obvious need for security clearance. But in the long run helping us get security clearance might help.

Now we turn to getting us a bit of what we want. Data and publishing. I understand these are tricky, but not as tricky as you think. Governments always seem to make this molehill into a mountain. There are lots of ways to grant an academic access to data. The Statistics Canada RDC experiment has worked very well via the deemed employee model. You can also use secondments, placements, fellowships, etc. Many of us are quite happy at the opportunity to leave the University grounds from time to time. We all get sabbaticals on predictable schedules and can often take leaves of absences. There is always the contract route as well.

The concern about publishing is always interesting to me. Very little of what we write is of interest to the general public. And the findings are rarely as scandalous as the government makes them out to be. More scandalous is hiding them. But if that is not enough there are a lot of ways to obfuscate details in a published paper. But if you want to engage with us, there needs to be something in it for us academics, and for us our currency is not money but rather publications. If you are not sure about this, I’ll give you a contact name for someone in the Ontario Government who has worked wonders in this area, and just got a huge increase in money and profile for what they do.

Engaging with academics can be free. I think the public would view that to be a great use of their money!

P.S. If you do something more formal, be sure to spell our name correctly, refer to us with the correct gender pronoun, and get our title and affiliation right. I recently did not respond to a request for my opinion as they didn’t spend a moment on the internet to know what my current title was or who I currently work for. They got both so offensively wrong that I was no longer willing to give them my time for free. I have also been introduced as a ‘he’ as I am walking towards the podium to give a talk and, trust me, my gender is fairly obvious.

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3 thoughts on “Engaging with Academics: It can be free

  1. Nice post, Lindsay. Right on target!

  2. […] I would like to see CRA more active in this area, but I also it hope it takes the time to understand what Nudge is (and what it is not), who to target, and what will work in Canada. There are more than a few academics who would be thrilled to be involved in such initiatives, in exchange for publications of course. […]

  3. […] I would like to see CRA more active in this area, but I also it hope it takes the time to understand what Nudge is (and what it is not), who to target, and what will work in Canada. There are more than a few academics who would be thrilled to be involved in such initiatives, in exchange for publications of course. […]

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