It’s Not Only Professors Who Increasingly Reach Out

Authored By 
Dan Feder
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student

In recent days, any  number of  professors have pushed back against New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s contention  that academics, and political scientists especially, are “trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide” and are cloistered “like medieval monks.” Professors, he argues, not only have less and less to say about the world around them—they barely seem to have an interest in living in that world.

For all of the smart responses to Kristof’s column on blogs, on Twitter, and in the Times itself, one point has gotten lost: professors aren’t just increasingly aiming to put themselves in the public eye and their research to public use. They’re also training the next generation of academics to do the same, promoting public engagement and policy-oriented research among graduate students who not so long ago would have been discouraged from even having a blog or a Twitter account.

Two years ago, the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale admitted its first class of Graduate Policy Fellows, a group of students drawn from across the University’s graduate and professional schools to conduct policy-relevant research and learn how to communicate their findings to policymakers, journalists, and the public. The program, which I run alongside ISPS Director Jacob Hacker, has been a cornerstone of ISPS’s mission of advancing research, shaping policy, and developing leaders (both in a practical sense and in terms of intellectual rigor). Our fellows have done all three, on topics as diverse as patterns of intimate partner violence in Chicago; the performance of foreclosure mediation programs in Connecticut; educational mobility across multiple generations; and how gang territories condition the geographic distribution of urban violence.

The fellows come from nearly every social science department at Yale as well as the business, law, and medical schools. They receive research support from ISPS, insights on the research process from top Yale and visiting faculty, and training in policy and op-ed writing, all while completing a yearlong research project with clear public policy implications. Fellows are constantly encouraged to consider the ways in which their research can help policymakers come to better decisions, and how they can communicate their findings in a way that informs public debate. Their primary outlet for doing this is through the ISPS blog, Lux et Data, but former fellows have also published articles on Slate  and PolicyMic . Yale’s Office of Public Affairs regularly picks up fellows’ blog posts and articles to include in weekly emails to the University community and beyond. And ISPS has recently inaugurated an undergraduate fellows program  that seeks to make politically engaged college students better consumers of academic research and participants in often-technical policy discussions.

Professors’ efforts to promote their own work and consider how their research might contribute to important local, state, and national discussions are obviously central to a public-facing academy. Nor should we discount the value of theory building, methodological insights, or replication efforts that may not make a splash outside disciplinary boundaries. But by supporting the next generation of scholars through opportunities like ISPS’s Graduate Fellows Program, professors are ensuring that academics will only become more mindful of the potential public impact of their work in years to come.