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Making an impact: What hacks want from boffins

Boffins café at the University of Nottingham
Boffins café at the University of Nottingham

As the only boffin – defined as ‘anyone with a job in a university, a science GCSE or a labcoat’ – at last night’s launch of Rob Hutton’s new book on journalese, I spent much of the evening grafting at the academia-practitioner interface (there must be a grant for this…?).

One conversation struck me in particular. Without naming him, it was with a well-known and respected journalist, and one who often uses academic work, and with proper credit too. One of the goodies, in other words. He reported that he had recently started to get a large number of emails from university PR and press bods, offering quotes from their university’s academics for his stories. What, he wondered, explained this? Cue a brief explanation of the REF.

But the trouble is, he said, that most of these emails were next to useless. Why? Because they offered Statements of the Blindingly Obvious, or SOTBOs. ‘Syria: not very nice all things considered, but jolly tricky, and won’t be easy to solve, says professor’. I made that up, but it sounded like the sort of stuff he was getting. He couldn’t do anything with material like that. So he’d hit delete – at which point there would be a phone call from the university’s press team wondering why he was not using their brilliant quote.

What he needed – and then would very happily use – was stuff that he couldn’t get elsewhere, especially at short notice. So historical examples (‘the last time this happened was 1837’), or overseas examples (‘the French did this; didn’t end well’), or insights that a generalist would have missed (‘you do realise that this is the same as…’). In other words, something, anything, that added value to the discussion. Academics should be able to do this when discussing their research specialism – if they can’t, perhaps they should consider a change of career? – but too many were offering up SOTBOs instead. SOTBOs do have a place – and occasionally journalists do want them, just to pad a piece out, but when they do, they will ask for them. When we push ourselves onto them, we should be ensuring that we provide something that they can’t get elsewhere.

When we launched this blog, adding value was one of the under-pinning principles. We’ve not always managed it, but it was at least the aim. And it’s no coincidence that the best pieces, those that get read a lot, are those that do this precisely that – such as this piece on why Iraq had no impact on young people’s engagement with politics, or on public attitudes to fracking, or on the impact of the riots (our most read blog post), or the regular Polling Observatory pieces, or (modesty does not forbid) occasional articles on backbench rebellions. They are very different pieces, but one thing that unites them is that they are SOTBO-free. The same should apply to any emails we send to journalists, pimping our work.

Philip Cowley

Published inAcademic Impact

2 Comments

  1. Charles Beckett Charles Beckett

    What your un-named journalist said is true in terms of adding value but I wonder if s/he is also falling into the traps described by Nate Silver and Daniel Kahneman where journalists privilege experts who have outspoken and unusual views as these are more exciting and give drama to analysis. Unfortunately, as Silver shows, they are much less reliable as experts. The novel view is very often incorrect.

  2. Hi Charlie — agree with you on that. But I think we shd be able to add value without being controversial. Sometimes doing that is the best way to show up the controversial but ignorant viewpoint for what it is.

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