Public Science,
Rethinking University
Stefan Selke and Nils-Eyk Zimmerman want to dismantle
the ivory tower and bring knowledge production to the people.
We have two speakers today – Stefan Selke is an advocate for a way of doing science that's public, transformative and angry. Nils-Eyk Zimmerman tries to imagine with us a way of doing university that's more hooked up to different parts of society. We hear from each in turn.

Stefan has a coloured academic past that includes aviation science, sociology and public speaking, and for him this colour is exactly the point. When he worked primarily as a social scientist, he looked at the issue of poverty and felt it was necessary to engage it in a language that wasn't necessarily seen a scientific. They told him he couldn't do it. "I did it anyway," he says with the ease of a TED speaker. For him this was the start of moving into public science before it was even a thing.

For Stefan, the product of science should be the transformation of society, and he was frustrated with how things seemed to tend toward the opposite. Research was happening in academic bubbles that existed parallel to the broader public and he wanted to bridge that. This, in a nutshell, is what public science means for him.

One of the issues he had with conventional scientific approaches was that scientific terms avoid emotions. We have professionals who define the objects of their research with exactitude, and they have good intentions for good results, but there might be a problem with how they turn the existential problems of billions into lifeless texts that can only be understood by insiders. The majority [us] remains clueless about what a given piece of research actually means.

This is the basis for public science, in his view: the desire to connect academia to the nuts and bolts of living. This involves allowing emotions into science, something he terms angry science or angry sociology. For him, anger is an expression of the urge to get involved in debates and voicing your stance. Anger can generate clarity, forcing us to define what is fair or unfair. It confronts us what the things that are important. Anger mobilizes.

He refers to Dorothee Solle, a theologian who says that the ordinary path to knowledge is a dogmatic, orthodox path. She links orthodoxy with looking at things with suspicion, while heterodoxy is looking at things through a lens (the 'hermeneutics') of hunger.

The first follows rules and delivers a kind of knowledge that's distant and aims for objectivity. The second looks for alternative perspectives, methods, languages and approaches. It, in the speakers words, listens to the silent cries of the underprivileged, scandalizes problems of hunger, refuses distant neutrality and encourages engagement.

Organic public sociology for Stefan gets in touch with visible audiences, engages in a process of mutual education, connects to a counter public. This can happen through informal education, blog posts, public lectures, talking to heterogeneous audiences, talking with people you don't like, doing performative sociology right on the spot. It's pointless, for him, to write academic articles for limited audiences when you can try to reach popular audiences. This kind of thinking's been controversial at his university, and one of the benefits of becoming a public figure is that it protects him from censure and certain criticisms.

Science never is actually neutral – it's a series of arranged conflicts. But for Stefan we have to live these conflicts and try to use all ways of entering into them productively. Think going from academia to journalism or activism or theatre – how can we transfer knowledge to other forms? He's given his research to artistic groups and saw how they transformed it – it means a loss of control, but for him it's worth it in getting a larger audience.
Tangent: while there's a lot of stuff here that's exciting, this line of thinking (and his way of communicating it) raises a few red flags with me (I am, potentially, being the voice of #orthodoxsuscpicion here). It
a) tries to collapse the distance between research and action. While it tries to bring together thinking and doing, it also has the side-effect of politicizing research (which some would say is good) and potentially polarizing it (which some, including me, might say is negative). You risk making knowledge partisan and excluding people from the process who think or believe different things. Then there's how
b) anger obscufates. He describes anger as a way of clarifying things, but anger can also make you see things in black and white – nuance gets lost. And as we saw with the museum this weekend, nuance sometimes is the only way out. Then there's how
c) positioning oneself against dogma doesn't mean much because dogmas change all the time. These principles could become the new dogma. It's sounds more like being reactionary (being #resistance) rather than standing for something in its own right. Then
d) it leaves too much space for rhetoric over rigour. Passing through checks and balances in research in favour of blogging/broadcasting our thoughts to the world brings makes us, at times, not very different from pundits. They too might call themselves angry scientists. And it makes it hard to have a conversation with them. Lastly,
e) it seems like it could introduce 'getting likes' as way of measuring success.
Another tangent: As a person involved in informal education, I really do resonate with the desire to get out of the ivory tower. So much of what he's saying is very exciting.
He uses the term transformative science to describe the shift away from rigid disciplinary knowledge to common knowledge. There are four spectrums here: how public do we want to be (visible/invisible), how do we want to represent things (abstract analysis/lived experiences), how engaged are we ethically (very/not so much) and do we incorporate concrete values (neutrality/normative practice).

For Stefan, science should be a promoter of change, based on ethical involvement and moral responsibility. From here he goes on to talk about what he calls the 'slow' university, one that addresses certain perceived deficits of the current academic system. For him, the current way of thinking sees knowledge as a measurable (and proprietary) product. Sometimes its like we exchange commodities (money for degrees) rather than dialogue. New key concepts he'd like to focus on are the production of public knowledge, increased public connectivity and an emphasis on the public value of that knowledge over (in his words) economic outputs.

So, his slow university has nine principles:
Taking time for sustainable scholarship
(instead of doing research in a rush)
Focus on education and personal development (instead of employability)
Fostering a 'be-mode' of knowledge production (instead of 'to-have' mode)
Engaging socially inclusive forms of knowledge production (instead of science-as-gatekeeper)
Moral engagement in teaching and research (instead of distant scientific role models)
Looking at local micro-policies (instead of using 'internationalization' as an exclusive benchmark)
Cross-border 'post-disciplinary' science (instead of distinct knowledge and disciplinary markers)
Integration of knowledge through different modes (science, art, civil society)
Narrative and engaging forms of presenting knowledge (instead of detached 'transfers')
That was the first speaker – now on to the second.

Nils-Eyk Zimmerman agrees with much of what Stefan said, especially on the potential for academia to affect day-to-day life. For him, he sees the way forward in terms of cross-sectoral work, finding the ways that different spheres can communicate. Rather than for the complete collapse of distinctions between science and public life, he advocates for becoming a node through which knowledge can easily pass through to everyone else. And for building systems that facilitate that exchange.

All academics, for him, should consider themselves connectors to something other than their students. Maybe it's to civil society, maybe it's to other universities or local art collectives. It all depends on the person themself. There are things that well-placed academics have access to and this access can be shared with society: think about donors, publication houses, places that host programs and things like this. Building our cross-sectoral competence means building these interfaces and really embodying this kind of 'node'ship in a new kind of network.

This requires local involvement and engagement, because you need to get to know the players around you. Other institutions. Local communities. Artists. Everyone. And then you can think about developing local projects with them that can bring your research into relevant new space.

This also means needing to learn new cultural and disciplinary languages – maybe one of your collaborators looks at things in a completely different way than you, and not understanding that way can lead to conflict. Maybe they have different motivational drives, certainly different than the kind of traditional reputation-capital that takes place in the academy. It's a challenge for us to learn these languages and to see the opportunities there.

The classroom can also be a space for this – think engaging institutional structures to help students be members and not only clients. They can be plugged into these networks just as much.

There's a lot of talk about what we call the 'commons', which is a collective space in which people are organized around a particular resource in a way that makes this resource accessible to the collective/public. A resource like this can be knowledge, a public space, media outlets, a presentation series, whatever. But if we think about things as a commons then we have to think about what we're doing on a level of output.

And by output it's not about economic factors so much as social ones. Think open educational resources, or access to the kinds of reasoning that often stands behind the academy and its decisions. People are already doing this, and it's picking up traction. There's still lots to do though. Think of how journals are accessible to students but not to regular people – it's a privatization of a common good, and the ones who benefit are a coalition of researchers and publishing houses.

When we talk about the transformation of universities in the context of this model, we speak about things on the process-level. Think of the act of commoning a space, the act of helping others learn from our collective experience so that we can together create a community of commoners.

We can also help civil society organizations because they constantly are under pressure to prove their impact. Often they have to show their social capital as well. People in the academy can help with this, because maybe we have access to resources that can help them attract donors and legitimize their projects. We can also help streamline our research into practical efforts by exchanging knowledge with civil society members in different ways.

We can see ourselves here as interfaces between these different parts of society – not just sharing knowledge but the reasoning behind knowledge production. And we can learn as well – just like Stefan said, engagement with public life keeps academics from growing stale. The university, for him, has a responsibility not just to itself but to civil society as well, and the local community.

Of course there many things still to think about – how can we not only engage educated, elite components of society but society as a whole? How do we avoid the trap of reductive indicators of success? If we step too far from neutrality, do we alienate people with other points of view? Will that delegitimize knowledge in the eyes of the public? How can we foster exchange instead of a top-down/colonial method of knowledge dissemination? And, in all this how can we make sure we're still being rigorous and not only popular?

A work in progress, folks. But work nonetheless.