One of those fiddlers...

Political scientists are in the thick of public debates, not sitting on the sidelines, argues Stephen Saideman.
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June 4, 2013
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In The Globe and Mail, Lawrence Martin argues that Canada’s political scientists are not interested in Canada’s politics or institutions.  Given who I am and what I do, I will try not to be too defensive here, but as I have realized in the past, if someone attacks you, you can either fight back or let the other guy win and shape perceptions.  So, excuse me while I defend myself and my profession.

My first thought upon reading this piece is this: does Martin read his own newspaper’s commentary section?  Seems to me that political scientists show up there on a regular basis.  Indeed, OpenCanada’s relationship with The Globe and Mail means that more of the pieces written here by the fiddlers of political science show up over there, if only sometimes in the electronic version.  Perhaps The Globe and Mail should shake up its staff of columnists to include younger folks who are more savvy about the conversations that are online via twitter and the blogosphere?

Which leads to my second thought: engagement takes place these days in many formats, including blogs, twitter, facebook, and other social media.  Some young political scientists have thousands of followers on twitter, such as Emmett Macfarlane (nearly six thousand) who also has a column at Macleans (does that count?), Phil Lagassé (2700) who appeared regularly in the media until he started work on the government’s F-35 re-evaluation project (not its official name), Mark Jarvis (2000) who won national awards for a co-authored book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government. That sounds pretty public debate-y to me.  Natalie Brender is yet another younger scholar who engages in significant outreach via Toronto Star’s electronic columns.  Indeed, if one is on twitter and follows Canadian politics and Canadian journalists, it is almost hard to avoid the regular conversations between academics and journalists about parliament, its role in the political system, the Crown, and all that.  Those conversations might have taken place thirty years ago, but not in public—nothing is more public than twitter and the blogosphere.  Instead, these chats would have taken place in august clubs, on golf courses, and at elite parties. 

Perhaps there are not as many of the big names in political science engaging in public debates, but Martin’s piece seems to suggest that there is a bit of “these damn kids” at work.  That is, in the good old days, the few big-name political scientists had heaps of sway (did they? How do we know? What it measurable?), but now most of the kids today do not study Canadian politics or Canadian political institutions.  Well, if you check out the Canadian Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting taking place this week in Victoria, you’ll find a program that is chock full of political scientists studying Canadian politics and Canadian institutions.  A quick websearch would have found the program and its contents.  On the bright side, this article seems to put Antonia Maoini, Pierre Martin, Jennifer Jeffs, Roland Paris and myself in the category of “those damned kids”, and as middle aged parents, that can only be a good thing.

Could more of Canada’s political scientists be engaged in public debates?  Absolutely.  There are crushing time constraints that limit how much attention scholars can pay to parts of their job that, frankly, are not rewarded much.  Tenure and promotion depends on research publications, not on public outreach.  However, there are some incentives to do more of this kind of stuff, as grant agencies are expecting more “dissemination” of our findings.  Plus the idea that people are actually penalized for doing public outreach is almost entirely a myth.

It is nice that Martin notes that:


There are exceptions. Academics were active on the recent issues related to prorogation, some have papers in the pipeline on democracy issues, some contribute quality commentaries on television and in newspapers. But it’s a far cry from the 1960s and ’70s, when professors manned the barricades on issues of cultural and economic domination.


The problem here is that Martin is suffering from something we call confirmation bias.  He notices more the old guard that participated in these debates and not the older scholars that never participated, just as he seems to notice more the political scientists who do not participate rather than those who do.  The reality, as always, is more complex.  Scholars range in their ability and inclination to speak to broader audiences.  The nice thing about the new technologies is that it is easier than in the past.  Perhaps one effect of this is that rather than three or five or seven big names wielding their gravitas, we have dozens of voices.  Personally, I prefer the diversity of the new generation, as their interests and their perspectives vary quite widely.