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We need to sell ourselves, say social scientists

BY DANIEL DROLET | APR 06 2009

A panel of international experts agrees: Social scientists around the world need to do a better job of selling themselves. The question is, how?

Four social scientists – one each from Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the U.S. – were participating in a panel discussion about the value of humanities and social science research. The panel was part of the general assembly of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences held in Ottawa March 7-8.

“If we can’t answer ‘What do you do, and why do you to it?’ to our neighbours, we should be concerned,” said Steven Wheatley, vice-president of the American Council of Learned Societies.

He added that social scientists need to learn to toot their own horn, particularly in tough times, when funding may be in jeopardy.

Miriam David, chair of the Academy of Social Sciences in the U.K., suggested social scientists learn to spread their ideas in new ways, and not just through scholarly journals. Ruediger Klein, executive director of the Netherlands-based All-European Academies, added that humanities and social sciences scholars should learn to think big. Pure sciences, he said, have done a better public relations job.

That’s possibly because the public finds it easier to understand the need for experts in the pure sciences, said John Byron, executive director of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Science is alien to most people’s experience and therefore seen as complex, he said. But social scientists study concepts that are part of daily life, so “we suffer from the curse of familiarity.”

Another part of the challenge, he said, is explaining to politicians – and the public – why work with no immediately visible applications is valid. Occasionally, said Dr. Byron, an opportunity arises when it’s possible to do that.

One such occasion was the devastating tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in December 2004. Australia immediately sent medical teams to the affected areas, but because no one in the medical team spoke the local language in Sumatra, the team’s work was hamstrung. That, he said, was a concrete illustration of the value of developing a humanities capacity.

But it takes time to build capacity in such things as language, Dr. Byron warned. “Capacity is not something you can just dial up on demand,” he said, explaining that you don’t learn a language overnight.

“We need to convince policy makers that research is not something you can draw down on from thin air,” he said.

There was a time when policy makers didn’t need convincing. Dr. Wheatley of the U.S. stunned the audience by presenting a quotation supporting the value of humanities research – “Every achievement in the humanities is a vital step in the national progress” – and then revealing that the words were spoken by former U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1970. Today, he said, “we must make our case to the public, and do so repeatedly.”

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