November 7, 2003
Talk the talk
Academics feel obliged to share knowledge with the community, but are they rewarded for doing so?
Dr. Jonathan Lakey remembers the excitement and fear he felt the day he and his colleagues announced the success of the Edmonton Protocol treatment for Type 1 Diabetes. It was a media frenzy. Lakey and his colleagues faced a phalanx of reporters and television cameras, answering questions while camera flashbulbs popped off around them.
"It was a wonderful experience but a very nerve-wracking one as well," said Lakey. "I had to learn how to give an interview, and I don't get as nervous now standing in front of five or six cameras."
Years have passed, and the success of the Edmonton Protocol has grown. Today you can still find media interviews and speaking engagements sprinkled in the day-timers of the islet cell transplant team members.
"I'm still not completely sick and tired of it," said Lakey, who delivered a talk to an audience of about 1,000 in Toronto this week. "It's still fun, and it's part of my job."
Wait a minute - part of his job?
Yes, Lakey insists, speaking to reporters and giving public lectures is part of the work he does as a professor at the University of Alberta.
"I am a big believer in the value of this," said Provost and Vice-President (Academic) Dr. Carl Amrhein, who feels the university is obliged to reward academics for such efforts.
Dr. John Dunn agrees with Amrhein that sharing knowledge with the greater community is part of the job, but he wonders how much of those efforts are taken into account by faculty evaluation committees. Earlier this year, Dunn published the results of some intriguing research about perfectionism among athletes in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. The research had a broad public appeal and Dunn found himself in demand by the media. He granted interviews "to try and bring it to life for people who were interested."
Without this exposure, Dunn's research would have been confined to a select group - academics who subscribe to the journal. Most academics, he says, have a "social conscience" and feel obliged to share their research with the greater community. Dunn took part in several interviews and fielded calls from parents and coaches from near and far.
He recently gave a talk on mental skills for athletes and coaches to an audience ranging in scope from under-fives to higher-level baseball teams in Westlock, about 90 minutes north of the city. He has given talks to coaches and athletes at all levels of sport, from community-league to elite levels.
But Dunn feels the university recognizes research and teaching more than this kind of community outreach. In faculty evaluations, professors' accomplishments are weighted 40 per cent each on teaching and research and 20 per cent on community service. Dunn questions the true weight given to the latter. When it comes to professional recognition, he says, the university places more value on research and grantsmanship.
"If I have a choice of spending an hour with someone from the media versus an hour writing a $200,000 grant application, I'm going to spend my time applying for the grant. That's what I truly believe I'm going to be rewarded for when it comes to the evaluation process. Excellence is defined in terms of research and grants."
"I can see where some faculty would say that," said Amrhein. "It is up to us to make sure it is fairly evaluated.all of it has to be recorded and rewarded."
And yes, Amrhein says, public lectures and media interviews are part of the duties of academics at a public institution.
"It is very important for the public to understand that this is what they get with a university of our calibre. It's part of who we are. It is part of what the funding gets them," he said. "And for the university, it helps by making it clearer to local, provincial and federal governments that we're contributing to the creation of knowledge."
The impact academics have in promoting the university is phenomenal, according to Lee Elliott, director of the Office of Public Affairs.
"When our researchers and intellectuals engage with media in discussions of public issues, the public profits, the researcher profits and the university profits. The public reaps the reward of their investment in terms of informed perspective on issues that matter to them - global conflict, SARS, obesity in children...it's an infinite list," she said.
Media monitoring firms assign an equivalent advertising value to news coverage. In the last three-month period measured, the equivalent advertising value for U of A coverage in national and local news was pegged at $4.97 million, said Elliott.
"No Canadian university can afford to buy that kind of exposure," she said. "I truly think the best public awareness campaign a university can launch is to just do great work and then make sure people know about it. The University of Alberta is becoming very good at this."
Dr. Stan Boutin is a good example of that. Earlier this year, Boutin and his team of researchers made headlines around the world when they published research on squirrels documenting, for the first time, a species adapting genetically to global warming.
Boutin says taking time to speak in public and to media could have the double benefit of helping to secure research funds while resulting in a positive performance review. Boutin has cited the intense media attention the research received in both grant applications and submissions for performance review.
"I put it down (in both) this go-around because we hit such a jackpot," Boutin said. "Some granting councils ask you about media coverage. I put it down to say, 'this is indicative of the magnitude of the research' . . . but for the most part, I don't think it is looked on as being that important - peer review is what counts the most.
"I try to push this to students too, that we are here at the grace of taxpayers, and the research funding does come from national and provincial coffers. We do have some obligation to these people to get this information back to them," he said.
Dr. Gordon Swaters, president of the U of A's academic staff association, figures professors will be rewarded for such efforts. Although he has never seen the 40-40-20 grading split between teaching, research and service written down as policy, it is understood to be the measure against which professors are held.
In his mind, he says, "it's an obligation, but it isn't explicitly written down anywhere - it isn't a condition of employment." But he believes community service has a cumulative effect in reviews. "Over the course of one's career, I can't help but think it is going to have some influence."
For his part, Lakey is hoping his efforts as a public intellectual will come into play - he's hoping to move from assistant to associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry: "I hope the hundreds of people I've had tour through our research lab and the groups we've trained would all be factors in career advancement."
As far as Boutin is concerned, you can't go wrong by taking your research to the public. If it's good for the granting councils, it's good for the researchers, he says.
"Budget funding to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is a political game, big time, and Tom Brzustowski (president of NSERC) knows that the way to make political mileage is to inform the media of what you're doing," said Boutin. "They (NSERC) keep track of high-profile stories in order to help land funding from Parliament.
"A number of scientists think 'I'm not going to get drawn into that game - that's for politicians and bankers and lawyers. But that's incredibly naive. If we want to play this game and get public funds, we have to be every bit as good as the chemists and engineers and physicists in competing for funds."