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  • Is Scholarly Knowledge Good for the Public?
  • Kenneth Prewitt (bio)

scholarly knowledgeadmittedly a clumsy term, but it will have to do until English decides on a word equivalent to Wissenschaft—differs from experiential, craft, or religious knowledge. It is not superior, or inferior, but differs in its reliance on disciplined, systematic, and cumulative inquiry. Since Bacon and the rise of modern science, scholars have understood their practice as methodologically rule-governed, though not methodologically uniform. Astronomers, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers differ in their methods, sometimes radically, but each must honor transparent standards of evidence and inference—as is nicely illustrated in essays by an astrophysicist (Jeremiah Ostriker), a social anthropologist (Rosalind Morris), a historian (Daniel Kevles), and a philosopher (Akeel Bilgrami).

The conference at which the essays in this issue were presented considered the future of scholarly knowledge from the perspectives of the three disciplinary clusters: natural science, social science, humanities. Sage Publications provided funding, as part of its generous support for the Future of Scholarly Knowledge, a project housed at Columbia University, which I direct. The conference was held at The New School as part of the Social Research conference series organized by the Center for Public Scholarship, which is directed by the editor of Social Research, Arien Mack.

Five years ago, I launched the Future of Scholarly Knowledge project by referencing a commonplace: scholarly knowledge is a public good. It is created transparently, and is widely and openly available; it meets the technical definition of public good (my use doesn't [End Page xxi] subtract from your use; no one is excluded from a public good benefit); it involves an obligation to disseminate in the familiar venues of teaching and publishing; it contributes to the public welfare, largely on terms of its choosing.

I would not launch my effort with that commonplace today. Instead I would use the question that titles this introductory note. So what's different? The acceleration of the commercialization of knowledge is placing new demands on traditional academic institutions, e.g., teach students what they need to know to get good jobs (and pay off their student loans) and measure the utility of scholarly research, allocating funds accordingly. Competitors emerged—for-profit global consultancy firms, online education, and a growing IT industry that creates its own (proprietary) information and packages it as profitable knowledge products. Even new types of knowledge creation find a home in the knowledge society—crowdsourcing, uncurated knowledge, the oxymoron "citizen scientists."1 Globalization became a catchphrase, covering numerous initiatives, not all of which, we begin to realize, were solidly anchored in principles of academic freedom. And stakeholders from outside the academy want a say, which I signal by converting the public good claim into a question: is scholarly knowledge good for the public? Across higher education, and in particular ways in research universities, there is a palpable sense that public support is less robust than in a past golden era, and now being displaced by a seemingly relentless insistence on impact.

This phrasing shifts attention from the future scholars expect for their knowledge to an unfamiliar territory, a place where the scholar no longer is the expert. Instead, members of the public or, more likely, its stakeholders, especially its elected representatives and self-nominated intermediaries, emerge as authoritative voices. The scholar hopes to be heard but cannot control the conversation, let alone the answer—frantic efforts notwithstanding. "Our research findings are, we promise, good for the public; please send money."

More concretely—the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Humanities [End Page xxii] (NEH), National Endowment for the Arts, as well as hundreds of specialized agencies and programs scattered across the federal, state, and even a few local governments disperse funds to universities, institutes, contract houses, think tanks, consulting firms, and related providers of research. This post-World War II explosion of government funding explicitly claims that this use of tax dollars is "good for the public."

Such claims have a history. In justifying public funds for the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the expected commercial payoff to the country. Abraham Lincoln, establishing the National Academies of Science in the...


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