November 2017 Newsletter: On Freedom of Inquiry, Effective Climate Change Solutions, and a Renewed F
NEW FROM SOCIAL RESEARCH: “THE FUTURE OF SCHOLARLY KNOWLEDGE”
“Is scholarly knowledge good for the public?” This is the question with which guest coeditor Kenneth Prewitt, vice president for global affairs and Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, opens the fall issue of Social Research, “The Future of Scholarly Knowledge.” No longer confined to the realm of higher education, scholarly knowledge is now produced in the private sphere as well, and in all spheres there is increasing pressure for accountability to the state, society, and corporate interests.
“The Future of Scholarly Knowledge” is thirty-fifth in the Social Research-Center for Public Scholarship conference series, and it contains the papers that were presented at the conference in October 2016. Following the conference format, the contents are divided into three sections: the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.
In the section on the humanities, Daniel Kevles (Yale, History) offers a cautious, nuanced defense of the pursuit of useful results in the long-term, noting that even the quarter-century after 1945 “was not an unalloyed golden era” for basic research. Arthur Lupia (University of Michigan, Varian Professor of Political Science) outlines a strategy to increase the value of social-scientific research by improving the communication of shared values between researchers and stakeholders. In the natural sciences, Wolfgang Rohe (executive director, Stiftung-Mercator) considers the challenges posed to the scientific community in the “post-truth” era.
While all the contributors to the issue share a committed, if careful, optimism on the resilience of scholarly pursuit, the issue is also not without its spirited disagreements, especially on the matter of the role of “social justice” and identity politics in the university. In his keynote speech, David Bromwich (Yale, Sterling Professor of English) addresses the matter in strong terms, concerned that this particular brand of accountability “may press so far against autonomy—the freedom-of-mind of the scholar—that tension seems too weak a word to describe the divergence.” In stark contrast, Rosalind C. Morris (Columbia, Anthropology) counters that “if the reduction of knowledge to the question of identity is the form of appearance of a crisis, we should respond not by advocating an impossible universality or by proposing more prohibitions, but with a question about what problems it attempts to resolve.”
As editor Arien Mack notes in her introduction, this is the fourth issue of Social Research since 2009 that concerns itself with the present position and future prospects of universities in the United States and elsewhere. However, this is in keeping with the history of the New School for Social Research; founded as the University in Exile, where the preservation of freedom of inquiry has been and continues to be a matter of core concern.
"The Future of Scholarly Knowledge" (Social Research 84(3) Fall 2017) is available in print through Johns Hopkins University Press and online through Project Muse.
— Jerusalem Parsons
Where Is The American Resolve For A Climate Solution?
The United States has famously (or infamously) pulled out of the Paris Agreement, yes,
but the impact of climate change, at home and abroad—strong hurricanes across America and the Virgin Islands, devastating floods in South Asia, catastrophic drought in the Horn of Africa— has left the world in pieces.
Although the US cannot officially withdraw from the climate accord until November 2020, many strings have come undone.
In the Fall 2015 issue of Social Research, Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, wrote about the importance of concerted government action to effect real change, noting that renewable projects, which are typically smaller, more complex, and more risky than traditional energy investments, require government-supplied incentives. He believes that the government must take the initiative to build the infrastructure of the twenty-first century. He also asserts that fossil fuel companies, which have considerable economic and political power, have caused much of the political division on climate change in the United States through aggressive action to promote doubt about climate science.
In this context, and nearly a year into the new administration, President Trump still has not appointed a science adviser, even though the position has been prominent since the Eisenhower administration. The adviser is meant to assist the president on all “areas of national concern,” from national security to the environment. In an interview with Fox News, however, President Trump said that “A lot of those jobs I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have.” The result has been a fact-free debate about climate policy on the US Congress floor.
Elke U. Weber, in the same issue of Social Research, discussed the psychological challenges behind the decisions to pay little heed to mitigate the effects of climate change. Although fear is a strong motivating agent, she wrote, it is only really useful if there is a simple thing we can do to get out of danger. According to her, if there are a range of options over months or years in time, for instance, most would quickly opt out rather than spend a considerable amount of time in a prolonged state of negativity. Because “there is no silver bullet—only silver buckshot, or actions across a whole range of things,” in the case of climate change, a quick gateway, such as pulling out of the Paris Agreement, seemed a whole lot easier.
However, there also needs to be a change in the way development is perceived to reduce the dangers of climate change as economies across Asia and Africa roar ahead to catch up with developed nations. By charting a linear mode of progress, the US has increasingly put pressure on consumption as the overarching measure of a well-functioning economy. Siri Gloppen and Asuncion Lera St. Clair, wrote about this in an earlier issue of Social Research, where they explained that the focus on carbon only and on markets as key tools of change could only go so far to clamp down on the effects of climate change in developing economies.
This week, as the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, brings together all 196 nations to implement the next steps of the Paris Agreement, the US, by rejecting its role in the international forum, stands on its own.
— Roshni Majumdar
Centrality of the “Rural”
Ismail Serageldin, in “Sustainable Agriculture for a Food Secure Third World” (Social Research, Spring 1999), claims that “the centrality of the rural is often forgotten” when discussing food sustainability, access, and development. Given that hunger and malnourishment paradoxically coexist with the availability and sometimes abundance of food, it seems imperative to examine the systemic problems in food distribution and access.
With over 190 million malnourished individuals and excessive food wastage, the primary concerns about food insecurity in India are food distribution and access. However, this focus on distribution often detracts from other important dimensions of the problem of food insecurity. One came to haunt the Indian citizenry in an explicit way this past summer: farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, carrying the skulls and bones of their fallen compatriots, eating their own feces, live mice, and snakes, staged a series of grotesque protests demanding the central government’s assistance to battle drought and debt. Farmers in other states soon joined in. The protests began after an upsurge in farmer suicides in the face of drought and debt — a pathological phenomenon in India, with over 300,000 casualties in the past 20 years — stunned the nation and forced India to heed the predicament of its farmers, who were increasingly unable to sustain themselves. The protests made clear that the realm of food production, the farm, was crippled and disintegrating.
Serageldin’s words proved prophetic here: “The challenge for us is to recognize that these poor farmers, who are producing the bulk of the food in the world, are the ones who have no voice and whom we have to reach.” These farmer protests in India broadened the discussion of food insecurity from inefficiencies in distribution and systemic impediments to egalitarian access to the structural challenges in the sphere of production. The problem of debt and the inability of Indian farmers to transform the conditions of their work complicates the problem of scarcity and hunger. Thus, the farmer protests of the 2017 summer, as Serageldin suggests, “[take] us … back to the centrality of the rural.” The conditions of the “rural” and conditions of those who inhabit the “rural” — the farmers — therefore need to be the focus of public discourse and government policies on issues of hunger and food insecurity.
You may also be interested in the following articles, published in the same issue of Social Research:
Preserving Freedom of Inquiry
"If academic freedom is a necessary condition for true creativity, originality, and innovation, what limits should we place on government or other intrusions on our institutional freedom? The definition of those limits is ...an important project that requires the engagement of those both inside and outside the academy. For if we are going to set such limits we will need those who are not insiders to recognize the critical nature of the decision: the very continued vitality of our great universities may depend on it."
— Jonathan Cole, "Defending Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry," Social Research 76(3)Fall 2009, 811-844.