Grammar and Twitter rarely sit happily, so it would be churlish to point out that when the Welsh MP Glyn Davies tweeted at the weekend: “Nothing more irritating than academics rubbishing the efforts of those operating at the sharp end, without facing up to the hard decisions”, he was inadvertently complaining that people at the sharp end (himself included presumably) do not confront hard decisions.
Besides, the next social-media missive from Davies made his position clear: “Personally, never thought of academics as ‘experts’. No experience of the real world.” His first point there might — just — be semantically defensible: academics, by one definition, are full-time scholars; whereas experts can be classed as those who have learned not through study but through experience. But it was his second assertion that prompted most of the angry backlash, and the inevitable hashtag response #realworldacademic that was still going strong as Nature went to press.
(Replies to Davies ranged from “Practiced medicine in Intensive Care Unit and emergency medicine while I was doing a PhD” to “Dude, you literally work in a palace”.)
There’s no need for Nature to tell its readers — mostly academics — that they have experience of the real world. They live it every day; and, for many, the realities of this academic life are starting to bite down hard. As we explored in a special issue last week, the real world of academia for many young researchers is insecure and under increasing pressure. Many are looking to leave. (And when they do, Davies and others please note, they seem to flourish.)
The popular image of an academic as aloof, privileged and out of touch — if it ever was true — is now redundant. But then so is the popular view that backbench MPs are, well, aloof, privileged and out of touch. In most cases, both groups work harder, and with more selfless goals, than critics claim. By their nature, those who study the science of what is probable will come into conflict with those who practise the art of what is possible. But researchers, along with everybody else who criticizes policymakers and elected officials, should remember that, as Davies seemed to be trying to point out, it is one thing to discuss problems and recommend solutions, and quite another to have to make and implement decisions.
One reason that the MP’s comments seem to have struck a nerve is that they feed into the popular idea — fuelled by the Brexit campaign and the rise of Donald Trump — that politicians, and by extension the wider public, have shifted away from reason and evidence. In a recent World View column, Bill Colglazier, a former science adviser to the US government, argued that this perception could be explained by differing attitudes to evidence — and on this point researchers seem to have some common ground with Davies.
Criticized last month for attending a lecture by the prominent climate sceptic Matt Ridley at the prominent climate sceptic organization the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Davies wrote on his blog: “I do not think Government policy should be based on a partial view of science. I like to make judgements based on evidence … In the end, governments the world over will be guided by evidence — or science delivered as evidence.”
The conflict between Davies’ support for evidence and his Twitter dismissal of those who seek and provide evidence seems, in the real world, to make for a curious paradox. Perhaps an expert could look into it.
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