Why is this? New York Times commentator David Brooks captured the nature of the problem in 2009 when he was asked on a National Public Radio broadcast if he thought any current scholars might have the same influence as mid-twentieth century intellectual, Reinhold Niebuhr. He replied:
“My favorite period of American social science is the period roughly between ’55 and ’65. And this was a period when you had a series of public intellectuals who were not lost in academic disciplines, but who are much higher-brow than your average journalist.” But, he added, “the milieu that created these big daring public intellectuals just isn’t there right now.”
The fact is that today’s scientists are indeed lost to the academy. The failure begins with training in doctoral programs and continues through professional development where the constant immersion in academic seminars and journals serves to weaken scientists’ literacy in the language of public, economic, and political discourse.
Scientists limit involvement in such “outside” activities because tenure and promotion are based primarily on publication in top-tier academic journals. And the metric of quality in a large number of such journals is more about theoretical rigor and contributions to scholarship, not empirical relevance to society.
Writing for the broader media, turning out books for the commercial press, and even serving on government panels are often discouraged as “anti-intellectual” at worst and an “impractical” waste of time at best.
In the end, the system of near-term incentives for young academics is perverse. It hurts the ultimate interests of the individual scholar and the potency and relevance of the scholar’s field. It also harms society, because of the absence of critical, rigorous, data-driven voices.