By Anjali Anand
While a familiar caricature of academics may be that of the solitary philosopher in an ivory tower, academic researchers are often creating and discovering knowledge that is at the forefront of addressing pressing public issues. To support faculty interested in sharing their opinions in media outlets, the Division of the Social Sciences launched a thought leadership initiative through the Social Sciences Research Center in Spring 2020.
A primary goal of the effort is to assist faculty in translating academic research into a format that others connect to their daily lives can prove challenging.
“You can’t be too jargon-y, and when you are so used to talking to academics, writing for a wider audience can be difficult,” says Katherine Kinzler, Professor of Psychology and faculty director of the pilot program. The program focuses on developing editorial articles for publication from faculty with expertise in topics related to areas of national conversation.
Kinzler, who recently co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with Sharese King, Assistant Professor of Linguistics on the relationship between racial bias and language, was instrumental in bringing the thought leadership initiative to the SSRC. When the program began in spring quarter, a confluence of crises including the pandemic and movement for racial justice, hit publics around the world.
“Our faculty in SSD have such critical knowledge to share with the world, many are uniquely positioned to make crucial contributions to public knowledge. We felt this was especially important in a time of global crisis, when we were thinking about economic impact and inequality, education, political systems – topics on which faculty have urgent expertise to share.”
Kinzler’s collaborator on the initiative, Dave Nussbaum, Adjunct Associate Professor of Behavioral Science at the Booth School of Business, acted as facilitator and editor for faculty who participated in the project. Nussbaum, who also serves as the Communications Director for the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, has extensive experience translating academic research into accessible prose for public audiences.
“Academics often have a reputation for dense, impenetrable writing but my experience has been that once it clicks that they’re writing for the public rather than for their colleagues, they do a wonderful job of explaining their work from a unique perspective,” Nussbaum explains. “You really get the chance to hear what’s interesting and important about the research directly from the source.”
Before turning his focus to SSD, Nussbaum had worked on writing and pitching op-eds with a variety of UChicago faculty, including Katherine Baicker, Dean of the Harris School of Public Policy; Richard Thaler, Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics; and Sendhil Mullainathan, Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science, among others. This broad-based experience has given him important flexibility in speaking to faculty coming from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds.
Amy Dru Stanley, Associate Professor of History, Law, and the College, worked closely with Nussbaum to produce a piece for the Washington Post in which she offered historical perspective on the scope of congressional power under the Commerce Clause as senators scrambled to shield employers from COVID-19 related liability suits.
Stanley notes that working with a communications professional like Nussbaum, who is also trained as a scholar, was particularly valuable.
“He grasped the gist of my argument, while prodding me to clarify obscure points and convert technical language into more matter-of-fact prose. Dave also asked thoughtful, illuminating questions that challenged me to make the connections between present and past more vivid, as well as to illustrate the interplay between law and politics more forcefully.”
Melissa Gilliam, Vice Provost and Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice, who served as a member of the Advisory Committee for the program, similarly notes that Nussbaum is a “wonderful thought partner, who can look objectively at the idea, guide you in how to shape it, and make important connections with editors.”
Kinzler notes that the goal of the thought leadership initiative, which works in partnership with University Communications, is to present academic research to the public with nuance and sophistication while maintaining clarity. Nussbaum’s professional background helps researchers make contacts with editors and meet editorial standards in their writing, without stripping their analysis of rigor.
Gilliam, who is experienced in using her research in innovative ways to address public health issues, highlights the importance of this type of public-facing work. “Academic research is relevant to the world and the researcher is often the best person to translate the work. Yet, academics are not taught how to communicate with a lay audience.” Gilliam believes that programs like the thought leadership initiative form a necessary link between universities and external audiences.
Going forward, the team leading the initiative hopes to make the project more accessible to researchers at the university, especially by including graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in writing about their work for a general audience. In particular, they envision the project going beyond the traditional op-ed and making academic research accessible through different platforms to reach new audiences. Another important concern is to include a wide variety of researchers in future iterations of the initiative, especially those who have been historically underrepresented among thought leaders at the university.
In expanding along these directions, Kinzler is optimistic that the project will grow beyond its initial successes in the pilot program this spring. “I am invested in the interaction of academic knowledge with public knowledge. We’re very privileged to spend our time discovering new knowledge, and I think we have a responsibility to convey that knowledge to the world.”