A friend asked today, “Why is there no one seriously critiquing the Gates Foundation’s priorities?” Given the influence that “Gates” has on the setting of public health priorities, as well as the massive sums spent, these priorities need to be critically examined. For example, I’ve heard on the grapevine that one reason the Ellison Fund left the area of global health is because Gates moved in–they simply couldn’t compete. Unfortunately, Ellison had a lot of experience and a very different approach than does Gates, so certain approaches to public health have been closed off.
I know there are a lot of public health workers who think the Gates’ money could be better spent, but you would have a hard time finding them, particularly on the internet. One explanation, of several or many*, is that those who work in public health aren’t engaging the public, particularly on the internet.
Ezra Klein notes a similar phenomenon with liberal economists’ absence on the internet:
Was talking to a friend last night about the impressive overrepresentation of libertarian economists in the blogosphere, and complaining that, given the massive numbers of lefty economists, my side’s intellectual firepower was being reserved for office hours. For instance: A few weeks back, David Brooks massively misrepresented the positions of Lawrence Katz, a former Clinton administration economist and current Harvard professor. I’d read a bit of Katz and noticed the discrepancy, so I gave him a call and convinced him to let me set the record straight. What astonished me, however, was that Katz himself had no interest in challenging Brooks’ distortions. It sucked, to be sure, but he had things to do, and why dwell? That the nation’s most popular op-ed page was misinforming Americans on the inequality debate was a shame, but whaddayagonnado?
Well, Katz could have written an op-ed of his own. Or written a piece for The Prospect. Or started a blog, as his right-leaning colleague Greg Mankiw has done. But he did none of those things: He was, if not content, then willing to allow his Clinton bona fides and Harvard-conferred authority to be used to distort the debate — that there was a responsibility to make sure his name and affiliations were to be used for good, not evil, didn’t seem to enter the equation. The public sphere wasn’t his sphere, and if he was going to be misrepresented in it, there wasn’t much to be done.
I hadn’t thought much about why it is that, say, the George Mason University economics department has decided en masse to take up blogging. My understanding from others is that, so much as I like Tyler and Bryan and all the rest, their libertarian outpost is pretty decidedly on the fringe of mainstream economics. But that’s probably the point. Folks forget how small the actual feedback circle is for most journalists, academics, and pundits. In theory, all these groups write books, articles, and do media aimed at audiences of various sizes. But until very recently, that conversation was completely unidirectional: They spoke, but few had an opportunity to talk back. So their reinforcement came from colleagues, friends, folks in their social circle. And for most popular academics, particularly those at Harvard, that circle was large enough, grateful enough, sustaining enough. For more embattled ideologies, the opportunity to popularize in a new medium was probably comparatively more attractive.
Which is a shame. Blogs are a remarkable tool for turning publicly-funded intellectuals into public intellectuals.
The last sentence is crucial. In light of how many of us are federally-funded, we need to engage the public more, outside of elite, academic circles. One good reason to blog, I think.
*: Of course, the most obvious reason is that people want the money…
Unfortunately the only accomplishment that tenure-granting institutions recognize is peer-reviewed research. If you’re on the tenure track, blogging and being a “public intellectual” is taking you away from competing with your peers. It’s narrow and stupid, but that’s the way it is, and the way it has been for a long, long time.
I don’t understand why money coming from Gates (or anybody else) should cause the Ellison fund to stop functioning in the area of global health. What do you mean by “they simply couldn’t compete”? In what manner do charities compete in providing health care? Oh, or do you mean some people/groups used to give to the Ellison Fund but now send their money to the Gates foundation?
Gates sees a million kids etc dying from malaria and says. “gees, this is criminal”. I see a million dying and say, “man, we haven’t got the sense to live with in our bounds”. so, it’s they way it is. That sean whatever on science friday today, is the begining of the end of shutting up the faithheads.
It’s like we don’t get to live because of the symbiosis of the multitude of organisms that are in and on us. not to mention the genes in us that illustrate our past.
insert ‘not’ at It’s like_____we.
a lot of foundations, either to keep the money coming in or to keep their founders and directors happy, have to stake out ‘novel’ territory, otherwise they think they’ll become irrelevant. Consequently, they want to spend their resources elsewhere where they aren’t second (or third or fourth) fiddle.
“Unfortunately the only accomplishment that tenure-granting institutions recognize is peer-reviewed research. If you’re on the tenure track, blogging and being a ‘public intellectual’ is taking you away from competing with your peers. It’s narrow and stupid, but that’s the way it is, and the way it has been for a long, long time.”
Very true. This explains why those of us on the tenure track, but not yet tenured, cannot afford to spend substantial time on anything other than research destined for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
It doesn’t, however, explain why those who already have tenure do not engage in more public outreach activities.
May I run with a casual rhetorical observation, picking up on the:
‘It doesn’t, however, explain why those who already have tenure do not engage in more public outreach activities.’ ?
Well, prying them out of those ivory towers is the first step. But why should they leave the comfy chair for the mean streets? sorry, that was snark, but the above example of Katz’s work being misrepresented for some one else’s agenda, without Katz firing back – pisses me off. If I had a fraction of that kind of intellect, I’d still come out swinging, not for glory, but for truth.
Anyhoo- What sort of POAs are the best or better ways to accomplish a good stirring up of the public interest or debate on matters of iminent importance?
The Bob Parks “what’s new” blog has been one of my favorite mainstays of a scientific community offering up heartfelt opinion, timely observations of cool milestones, and wondeful rebukes of junk science in a manner that is engaging. But at the end of the day, how much impact does print opinion effect? Blogging and letters to the editor don’t stir the pot like ‘geeks-on-the-ground’. Outreach, IMHO, means going into the classrooms, or bringing the class to the labs.
Blogging is a great asset for the already informed (and occasionally the snark graphitti), but overall the blogosphere seems a passive aggressive means of fighting fire.