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Let’s stop the devastating waste of intellectual capital in our universities

A domestic crisis is unfolding on your TV screen. The news broadcaster is moderating a panel of experts, including three professors from eminent tertiary institutions.

Good, you think. They’re the experts. It’s people like them who will solve society’s many challenges and save us from ourselves. Or will they?

You get the impression when you see them interviewed on TV or giving a TED Talk that academics and their expertise is making a great contribution to solving the many problems society faces.  In reality though, the vast amount of academic findings that could be shaping public debate is hiding in peer-reviewed articles.

Exactly, peer-reviewed. In other words, read by other academics.

If you consider that around 1.5 million of these articles are published annually, it’s a lot of information and potentially brilliant insights collecting cyber dust somewhere in the ether.

What a waste. There are many people in the world, not ensconced in academic ivory towers, but who are nonetheless highly intelligent, creative and innovating. Imagine what innovative solutions they could come up with if more of research findings across academic disciplines were easily accessible in the public domain.

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That is, communicated in a clear, not dumbed-down, manner, devoid of subject-specific jargon and unnecessary complicated language.

Why are more academic research findings not communicated with the general public?

  • Some academics are on a purely intellectual mission and explaining complex thinking and arguments to lay people doesn’t feature in that mission.
  • Very few tertiary institutions reward academics for sharing their findings and perspectives with the media. The publish-or-perish culture predisposes academics to write for academic journals as their careers and promotions depend on it.
  • This also means they simply don’t have the time.
  • There’s a world of difference between academic writing and writing for public consumption. It is not easy to explain complex concepts specific to an academic field in a manner that would be digestible for a larger audience. Some people have a natural talent for teaching and sharing knowledge and others don’t. The fact that someone can spend years in a lab and come up with ground-breaking findings, doesn’t mean they have the ability to share the implications of their work with a broader audience.

Let’s stop the waste of intellectual capital

Too many exciting research findings that could benefit society are going to waste.  The work done at universities can serve society better if academics are supported to share their findings outside academic structures, academic journals and conferences exclusively for academics.

One option is to provide incentives, like promotions, for sharing research with the general public. This would imply support in terms of making time available for academics to fit it into their work schedules.

Wouldn’t it be great if the idea of sharing cutting-edge research findings with the general public could be promoted as a desirable or even cool aim for all academics?

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