Academix, or Who is explaining their research to Aunt Dora Lee?


Regardless of the country I live in, I bump up against clichés about university professors and their role in public life.  Nah, I bump up against clichés about their value per se. 

Years ago I was standing around in a group of family members that included cousins who work for big companies and banks in Texas and Kansas.  I said to them, conscious of our political differences, “Please do not support the (United States) congressional attacks on grants to scientists from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Basic research is really important.”  My aunt Dora Lee listened for a while and then spoke for all present when she stated, “Paula, honey, if y'all could just explain your research in words that we could understand, we’d be much more supportive.”
Now let me tell you something about my aunt Dora Lee, who lives in Dodge City, Kansas (which some of you thought only figured in films and television, but which is a real place).  She is no one to scoff at.  Her debate partner in high school was Arlen Specter, former Senator of Pennsylvania, and they did very well in debate.  If I recall correctly, they went to the state finals.   So she could handle such an explanation intellectually.  But do university professors explain things to her?  Maybe not often enough.
I learned this most forcefully in the context of those congressional confrontations with the NSF that I mentioned above.   At the time, in the early 1990s, the US congress was taking a look at the titles of funded NSF grants, laughing at some of those titles, and then threatening to take money back.  Now, it is true that I was not aware that the title of my grant proposal (separated from the rest of the document) might be examined by anyone outside of NSF.  I was further unaware that members of congress might toss my title around and then, after yukking it up for a while, decide that I no longer needed to conduct the proposed research. 
Needless to say, my grant was one of the targeted proposals.  I think that there were 60 or 70 such grant proposals in all.  The head of the subcommittee that was convened to perform this examination of federal funding of basic research was Senator Barbara Mikulski.  At the time I was part of Mikulski’s constituency, so the American Psychological Society (APS) in Washington D.C. enlisted me to defend psychological research in this context.  I wrote letters that were published and I called Mikulski (and relatedly Bob Dole) and I prepared to defend Psychology.  In the end, I cancelled the meetings (much to the dismay of APS) because I accepted a job in another state, thereby leaving Mikulski’s constituency, and also put aside any interest in meeting with Bob Dole. 
But before the meetings were tabled, I did have a long conversation with a Mikulski administrative assistant about the scheduled meeting.  What I retain from the conversation, in sum, is this:  “You, Dr. Niedenthal, are pretty much the only academic who has ever suggested that they would have this type of dialog.  Most academics we deal with are so arrogant and off-putting that the conversation dies before it begins.”  I also remember the sentence part, “for example, I just recently talked with Dr. X at (very famous) University Y and they pretty much told me, ‘@#$%^&*!!^%$!!!@!!’.”  That is just one administrator speaking for just one U.S. senator.  But still, I took it as a very bad sign.
I thought of all this today while listening to Alan Weil, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy, talking to people like Aunt Dora Lee on National Public Radio, and I was impressed.  Now, this is his job, so I sure hope he can do this, but he was completely tolerant of the types of questions that Aunt Dora Lees out there asked him.  Some were ideological, some were political; some were informed and some were not.  But he managed to link academics and public policy and public dialog.
This is the Centennial of the “Wisconsin Idea,” which holds, among other things, that the University of Wisconsin, as a public institution, should bring ideas and knowledge to all the citizens of the state.  I told my undergraduate students about this.  Although I think that often the citizens have to want to listen much more, I also think that university professors have to be willing to talk to Aunt Dora Lee.

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 8:21 PM OCT 19, 2011