David Allen of Collab CPR asked me to be on a panel on "Intellectuals in the IGF" in Athens, which I just finished speaking at. My role was to address some of the more practical possibilities of engaging academics more cohesively into the Internet Governance Forum, based on my experiences with the SSRC program on media and democracy. The session was mostly a, well, intellectual exercise, and my bit only came toward the end. That said, I think it went quite well, and brought up some ways forward that needed to be expressed.
Here is the full text of my speech, which was somewhat truncated due to time considerations….
Social Science Research Council
It’s an honor to be on this panel with such an august group of speakers. Thanks to David Allen and Collab CPR for the invitation to be here.
I should note from the start that I am not an academic or an intellectual as much as an organizer and activist. Hopefully my mostly practical advice will be of some interest to you, even as it does not pack the intellectual punch of the other speakers.
About the SSRC
I work for the Social Science Research Council, a US-based international NGO that for 80 years has been bringing academic research capacities to bear on important issues of public policy, from HIV/AIDS to migration to communications and media policy, which is the project I coordinate. Specifically, SSRC is engaged with trying to bridge the multiple gaps that exist between academics that study communications policy and activists that advocate for specific reforms of communications policy. We do this through targetted funding of research projects that bring together researchers and activist groups, working toward increased access to data on the media, and enhancing knowledge of research relevant to various areas of communications policy.
Our program is based on the general finding that academics and advocates work within cultures and environments that often don’t speak the same language, operate in different timetables, and value different kinds of work and results.
Our broadest goal is to ensure that debates about how to manage critical communications infrastructure are informed by high-quality research and a deep understanding of the public interest.
We just completed a couple of projects that elucidate some of the problems in academic engagement in policy:
- The first was a set of academic studies on the ownership of media resources in the United States, which was done in conjunction with several advocacy groups. The researchers looked a subjects such as linkage between ownership concentration of radio stations and the diversity of radio programming, how African-americans and other minorities consume news media, and how television and newspaper ownership concentration relates to the provision of news and public affairs programming.
- We also recently funded six other studies on communications and media policy through an open call for proposals for research submitted by activist groups.
- And we are engaged with negotiating with several media and communications data providers on better terms of access to data for researchers and activists.
Our of these experiences, we have confronted a series of challenges:
- What happens when groups don’t like the findings of academic research? Should that research be disseminated and how should it be framed?
- How do you evaluate and criticize in a fair way the methodological rigor of research submitted by industry, governments, civil society?
- How to teach advocacy groups how to frame potential research questions that are understood and attractive to academic researchers?
- How should researchers deal with the subjects of research, particularly if the subjects are underserved populations, marginalized communities or grassroots organizations?
- How should government processes consume and consider submitted research?
- How to frame findings of research in ways that are helpful for advocates, inform the public, is comprehensible to the media?
We don’t pretend to have found the best answers to any of these questions. But here are some things we are starting to learn:
1. Some groups are more well-placed than others to frame their questions in ways that can readily be taken up by academics. These tend to be larger, national-based groups based in capitals. Smaller, grassroots organizations have many pressing research needs, but often have more difficulty in framing them in ways that are easily responded to by a researcher. They often don’t know how to approach an academic researcher for help. We found that we had to get back to smaller groups who applied and give them specific feedback on how they should rephrase and expand their research applications to be more likely to be taken up by academics.
2. Because there are so few academics who are interested in policy-oriented research, enabling a critical peer review process can be difficult. Pretty much anyone willing to do the work is welcomed. Most academics who do make themselves available tend to fit into the scholar-activist mold.
3. Access to data is a major hindrance to policy-oriented research. Most data relevant to media and communications policy is held by private sector entities that usually sell it to companies at prices that are unaffordable for either academics or activists. Where they are able to get access to data, they often are not able to share that data with others due to strict licensing agreements.
4. Academics often need help in framing their results in ways that are understood by policy-makers and the general public. Media-savvy communications skills would be one area where some training for academics might help. I.e. we had a hard time summarizing the results of five studies in ways into one phrase that could be understood by the media. I.e. “the studies found that there was no support for the telecom industry’s contention that media concentration leads to more diverse media that was accessible by more people.” We summarized that by saying “Bigger Media Does Not Equal Better Media.”
Suggestions for ways forward for the IGF:
1. For specific policy questions, where different policy options are on the table, create a mechanism for differing views to back up their claims with scholarly research. Facilitate academic debates and exchanges to test each others methodologies, findings and data analyses.
2. Create mechanisms for publication of work with a respected institution. I.e. getting a major university to jointly publish with the UN a collection of articles and studies related to internet governance, perhaps in advance of an IGF meeting. These studies might form the basis for richer discussions and policy recommendations during the IGF.
3. Acknowledge that some sectors are more able to fund research that supports their claims, i.e. large corporations, western governments. Where research resources are available, allocate them to support less well-supported sectors and interests, i.e. civil society groups, small business associations, developing country delegations.
4. Create mechanisms for research needs expressed by different groups to be made visible: i.e. an online listing of research questions submitted by different organizations and dynamic coalitions.
5. Make visible which researchers and research institutions are interested and available, and on which subjects. I.e. with a searchable database.
6. Match-making: Enable researchers interested in scaling up their research to be able to find each other for collaborative multi-national studies.
In short, I suggest the creation of an online research hub for the IGF with community-populable databases, match-making services, and regular news relevant to the IG research community.