Who cares about the science?

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Text by Lin Lerpold, Associate Professor SSE & Executive Director Misum

During the summer I gave a lecture on how Swedish companies work with sustainability. I was in the United States presenting to a group of relatively educated and international business people, many of them having a Swedish background. For the first time I met with climate change deniers and it was somewhat of a shock for me. Though my lecture took for granted what an overwhelming majority of natural scientists agree on regarding human impacted climate change, I was unprepared for having to argue that climate change was indeed a surety. Of course there must be climate deniers also in Sweden but few would articulate their denial in a country where political correctness and conflict aversion is culturally high. My reaction was to fire back that according to the science it was beyond doubt that human behavior was indeed having a negative impact on our planet. The immediate response, “Who cares about the science?”

On April 22, more than one million people in more than 600 cities around the world united in an unprecedented coalition of organizations and individuals. People marched around the world to stand up for science and to defend the role of science in policy and society. Currently, a draft special report on climate change is now under review by the White House. The report was written by scientists inside and outside government, with input from the public and the National Academy of Sciences and concludes that Americans are most definitely feeling the effects of climate change right now. The report is designed to be an authoritative assessment of the science of climate change. According to the New York Times, some scientists fear that Mr. Trump will seek to bury it or alter its contents before it is formally released during the fall. The NYT headline reads, “Climate Report could force Trump to choose between science and his base”.

As scientists, with science as a belief system, we need to in the current zeitgeist of “alternative facts” ask ourselves why we now have to “Stand up for Science”. We need to go to where science is conducted and disseminated; to our universities and to academia, and consider whether we as institutions and scientists have in any way contributed to the loss of public trust in science, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity. Might it be possible that our contemporary academic structural incentives, with the sole de facto focus on scientific publications for promotion, has contributed to the demise of scientific influence and impact on society at large?

Though we pay lip service to the traditional three-legged stool mission of universities (research, education and service), we have overwhelmingly become subject to what Edwards & Roy (2017) describe as the “growing perverse incentives in Academia” where only the leg of research is valued in the scientific community which promotes on the number – often quantity over quality – of publications in scientific journals. The scientific journals and their articles themselves are usually neither accessible nor understandable to the general public.

Many research-based universities’ mission is to provide science based education, be it to their own students, practitioners and policymakers, or to society at large. To fulfill that mission, universities need scientists conducting rigorous research, but also scientists able to act as translators of knowledge to their students and the general public. Moreover to justify the resources from public and private funding for research, scientists need not only be scientific knowledge producers and pedagogical transmitters of that knowledge, they also need to help ensure that their research informs and benefits society at large. Scientists must go beyond discourse through, oftentimes, impenetrable articles and be incentivized to also reach those outside the scientific community. Why else should resources be spent on research if not to better serve the development of our society?

This is often called the third leg (academic service), and involves contributing to science-based knowledge and expertise to policymakers, to practitioners, participating in expert evaluations, not least of all disseminating knowledge to the general public through mass media channels, thus having a potential impact more broadly to the general public. This leg of academia, necessarily legitimately connected and based on the scientific research leg, has the greatest potential to engage and make people outside the scientific community better understand and trust science again.

Yet though the three legs of education, outreach and service are most times included in formal tenure promotion requirements in leading universities, only lip service is paid to being a good teacher or knowledge disseminator outside the scientific community. Indeed, teaching is oftentimes considered a necessary evil and referred to as a “burden” or “load” and a scientist in the public eye is many times considered suspect or accused of being too “political” by other scientists when they engage in societal discourse. Instead, only publications in narrowly defined and established scientific journals are valued and considered legitimate in most tenure advancement evaluations.

Academics are humans and readily respond to incentives. The natural wish to achieve tenure and promotion along with the current overwhelming focus on scientific publications to do so, may possibly be linked to the general public’s disregard and even distrust of science. As scientists we do care about the science. We take it for granted as our belief system. How can we ensure that science matters also for non-scientists? How do we, for instance, make my lecture to the international business participants and politicians like Trump care about the science? Perhaps it is through a more balanced three-legged academic incentive structure promoting the legs of education and academic service to society as important as the leg of research.

Written by: Lin Lerpold, Associate Professor SSE & Executive Director Misum

Sustainability at the Academy of Management Conference 2017: Conspicuous silence on the role of the current political context for business

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Text by Mette Morsing, Professor in Sustainable Markets at Misum/Stockholm School of Economics.

Back in the days, when I was a PhD student, the SIM Division (Social Issues in Management) of the Academy of Management was the one important Division to join if you had an interest in corporate social responsibility, environmental challenges or ethical issues related to business. This was the only Division where fundamental questions of the legitimacy of business institutions and their responsibilities in society were discussed intensely. US professors Ed Freeman, Tom Donaldson, Sandra Waddock and many others were leading the debate. Later on the ONE Division (Organization and the Natural Environment) emerged with an important focus on the environmental aspects related to business.  My academic “AOM home” was OMT (Organization and Management Theory) but here, like in the other AOM Divisions, ethics, environmental challenges and social responsibilities were regarded as exotic, abstract and somewhat peripheral issues to be part of mainstream research on the firm.

Today, that has changed considerably. The important questions about the role, functioning and legitimacy of business institutions in the context of global challenges are now debated across the AOM Divisions. In other words, CSR and sustainability have become important mainstream research topics at AOM. For example, this year the OMT (Organization and Management Theory), OB (Organizational Behaviour), OCIS (Organization, Communications and Information Systems) and SAP (Strategizing Activities and Practices) Divisions have all attracted a considerable number of research papers, symposia and caucuses on environmental disasters, irresponsibility, unethical behaviours, corruption, inequality, human rights abuse and climate change.

Undoubtedly the current rise in business scandals has contributed to raise the attention among management scholars about these urgent matters. But perhaps even more important for triggering the scholarly attention is the current global questioning among politicians of man-made climate change, their denial or disregard of science, and their inability to find solutions but rather stimulate harsh political disputes about immigration. As we have all seen, governments are currently in dramatic ways setting a changed tone for societal progress. This new tone has created uncertainty and a tense situation for businesses awaiting the changes of regulatory frameworks that will influence their space to navigate. The media furnishes our society on a daily basis with these socio-political changes.

Therefore, it was surprising to find a conspicuous silence in the AOM community about the socio-political context that so heavily influences these crises in today’s world. Across the AOM Divisions and in the many presentations, debates and panels on the challenges to ethics, responsibilities, environment and climate change, the current political transformations in society were not mentioned. Instead there was a conspicuous silence. Perhaps the new political tone is taken for granted among management scholars? Perhaps current politics is not for management scholars to engage in? Perhaps it is too complex for a single-argument paper? Or perhaps the current political systems have become a taboo in a US management scholar context?

One exception, though, was the ONE Division (Organization and the Natural Environment) that hosted a rather popular “ONE plenary”: “Green management under pressure”. This group took the liberty of debating the dangers of the current global political transformations in relation to sustainable development in a mode that included empirically substantiated knowledge as well as normative input.

In this context it is worth reminding ourselves that this is exactly what professors Tom Donaldson and Jim Walsh (2015) called for in a recent article: empirical analysis, practical opportunities and normative theorizing. They challenge the current theory of the firm, inviting us all to reflect on providing novel answers to four basic questions on the role of business in the current societal context of the planet: (1) what is the purpose of the firm? (2) to whom should the firm be accountable? (3) who should be in control of the firm? and (4) how do we define a successful firm? What the “ONE plenary” session at AOM did was to add a fifth and important question about politics: what is an appropriate political context to support sustainable development? And a sixth equally important question about temporality: today, what are the important political transformations in the current business context?

While the research agenda on unethical behaviour, irresponsibility and sustainable development has successfully spread from the SIM and ONE Divisions to a much larger debate on the role of business in society across AOM Divisions, perhaps it is time to reconsider the next move: to engage AOM management scholars in exploring the role of today’s political context for business.

If we as management scholars want to remain not just novel and cutting edge in a scholarly sense, but also want to remain relevant to today’s business and society, we need to provide some thinking about how systemic injustice, corruption, human rights abuse and climate change are not just externalities of poor business management to be repaired by (other) managers. These problems are also closely related to the political systems and governance structures. Some management research has already engaged exploring for example political CSR and sustainability governance (e.g. Crane, Matten and Moon, 2010; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007, 2011). It is good. It is theory. It is conceptual. However, we still need to understand how we as management scholars can integrate the current governance structures that businesses today are operating in. That will make our own community not only relevant but also potentially influential.

So, while the SIM and the ONE divisions over the past decade seem to have successfully integrated their research agendas across the AOM Divisions, there still seems to be an obvious silence to break and a relevant new challenge to pursue: how to bring the global current political climate into the AOM scholarly debate?

Footnote. Academy of Management is a management scholarly community with 20 000 members and 10-12 000 of these meet every year at the annual conference in the United States.

 

Written by: Mette Morsing, Professor in Sustainable Markets at Misum/Stockholm School of Economics.