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Have academics forgotten how to talk to each other?

Dr David Roser & Dr John Merson

July 21st, 2009

Increased specialisation within academia means that academics no longer talk, share ideas or work together. It also means they're not good at practising what they preach, especially environmentally...

Fifty years ago the polymath C. P. Snow published ‘The Two Cultures’. The work was notorious because it bluntly complained that many university intellectuals in the humanities had become Luddites ignorant of the exqufundamentals of nature such as the Laws of Thermodynamics, which Snow equated in beauty to Shakespeare.

Snow in fact presented this example of knowledge operating in ‘silos’ as a metaphor to stimulate discussion on the decline in the quality of communication between otherwise intelligent, open-minded people. He also identified similar divides between scientists and engineers locked in their individual intellectual silos, speaking to one another in mutually incomprehensible languages. He argued that this phenomenon was growing, unhealthy for society and needed to be countered.

Since Snow outlined his case, however, the silos have flourished and universities have promoted this development. Physically, university campuses and buildings have increased in number and size in response to the growth in knowledge, theories and technologies, national populations, education levels and wealth. Internally a host of specialisations, disciplines, centres, and institutes have emerged. There is even a formal ‘silo’ for studying the phenomenon, ‘Knowledge Management’ promoting Intellectual Capital, Social Software, Knowledge Repositories, and even ‘Storytelling’!

At the same time, bureaucracies have blossomed to manage this menagerie. Academic jobs are defined as compartmentalised specialisations based on human resource management theories. Government support is structured though similar division by discipline and priority. 

Academic silos maintain their integrity through specialist journals which only their members can really understand. This defines the silos conceptually. Allocations of large fund pools are overseen by academic gatekeepers grouped into ‘colleges’. Internally, universities have constructed ‘grant application auditing’ and ‘support’ complexes. Via direct support and industry-tied grants, business and governments promote university-based groups servicing corporate priorities.

Silos and the environment

Irrespective of whether the silo r/evolution is good or bad, this list illustrates the scale and nature of modern silos. The only flaw in the old metaphor is the silos has evolved since Snow’s day rather than being locked in time as the concrete grain bin image suggests. Some have even gone extinct or are endangered (music, geography, wool technology come to mind).

What interests us looking simultaneously from within the ballroom and from afar is whether silo architecture promotes or hinders the university role in achieving an environmentally sustainable future. This question is a burning one as universities dominate what new environmental issues are studied, available resources, knowledge access, communication modes etc.

On the surface things look good. Universities nurture the sort of innovations required to tackle today’s environmental problems. They are repositories of primary data on ecosystems and the built environment from the world over. They provide fora for research and discussion. They perform unique social roles distinct from those of government, private companies, research institutes, the media and NGOs, which include the systematic teaching of environmental basics, passing down systems of analysis, providing information unbeholden to corporate mission statements, and pursuing a search for global truths rationally rather than rationalising ‘truth’. They provide nurseries for new cross-disciplinary studies - ecological philosophy and ethics, environmental planning, management, law, and even economics. Alternative technologies are researched. Collectively they have generated new environmental data on a scale that is staggering for those, like us, raised since 1968 when Apollo 8 showed us Earthrise and for many, the ecological penny dropped. 

But then why don’t we feel at ease? Could it be because the new ‘interdisciplinary’ departments are in fact based upon the very silo system which Snow identified as problematic?

Being interdisciplinary does not necessarily equate to better mutual understanding. Snow identified engineering as a class of silos, and engineering is nothing if not multidisciplinary. Beyond formal ‘networking’, day to day communication between colleagues and students in the science, engineering and planning disciplines appears limited even where they occupy the same building. But then who has the time with every day’s second devoted to evermore Key Performance Indicator achievement in the name of efficiency?

A lack of (cross) discipline

The same can be seen at other discipline interfaces, for example economists and ecologists. Both employ systems thinking, yet have developed very different views on planetary management – ‘let the market decide’ vs. ‘the market is a root cause of the problem’. Student interdisciplinary theses are notoriously difficult to manage, leading to that critical endgame of picking sympathetic examiners.

Then there is the environmental evidence available to all who work in academic institutions. Infrastructure-wise little progress seems to have been made nearly 40 years after the 1972 Stockholm environment conference identified over 100 burning issues. City-based campuses continue losing green areas to conventional concrete/steel/glass buildings and roads punctuated with token planting boxes and biologically dead lawns. Transport is dominated by multi-storey car-parks for the privileged academics, 1 km walks to cars and/or few token cycle ways. Water is largely imported. Power comes from the grid. Waste is largely exported unprocessed.

So on paper the universities collectively seem to ‘talk the talk’ but rarely ‘walk the walk’. How this paradox came about seems obvious. Contrary to Snow’s hope of a revitalised community of polymaths discovering knowledge and applying this insight to achieving a sustainable future, the modern university has evolved into a complex of silo-like entities where everyone just ‘gets on with their job’.

On the plus side, in modern universities have arisen knowledge factories that are not locked rigidly into the past.

On the downside they seem oddly incapable of putting this knowledge into practice in their own back yards. And all the while they purport to tell society at large how to clean its sustainability act? One Vice Chancellor recently commented ‘there is a danger of having too many smart people in one institution’. Perhaps. But maybe this situation is also telling us that it is not only our industrial system but also our knowledge system that is flawed when it comes to achieving a sustainable future.

Dr David Roser and Dr John Merson are academics in Sydney, Australia


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