Burak Can remembers clearly the decisive moment that made him conscious of the need to learn to better communicate the topic of his research at Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. “Two years ago, two friends asked my partner Ingrid Rohde over dinner about the topic of her research at ROA. I was absolutely amazed at the way she explained it to them. She did it in such a nice and impressive way and I was shocked to notice that I couldn’t do the same with my own research.”
Can explains that his research on matching theory and social choice theory can be applied to any topic that can be presented in a ranking. “It is an important field of research because it can bring a lot of very nice solutions that are not used yet to a lot of real life problems,” he says.
As examples, he cites school rankings, country stability rankings, political party rankings in times of elections, pension funds rankings, to name but a few.
The language of science
Although he is convinced of the need to communicate science and sees it as a personal responsibility to do so, Can acknowledges that it is a difficult exercise to translate the language of science into a language that his parents or neighbours can understand.
“This is what my language looks like,” he says with a smile, turning to the white board covered with mathematical formulas on his wall. “This is the language of science. We hardly use words.”
In August 2013, Can was awarded a three-year VENI grant from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for a research proposal titled ‘Policy making in changing societies’. In academic wording, Can explains that the purpose of his study is “to investigate a monotonicity condition, or an axiom, in matching theory, which would characterise the core of matching markets, in the hope to know more about when preferences in matching markets change and hence to find out how to preserve the outcome on those changes.”
Can laughs: “This makes no sense at all to an outsider, but to an insider, with a few more details, it can be very interesting.”
When he wrote his application for the VENI grant, he formulated his proposal without using the language of economics. “I wrote it in a way that the jury, which consisted of researchers from different scientific fields, would be able to understand it. If people from my own field would read it, they would wonder why I wrote it that way,” Can said.
His proposal on the NWO website reads: “Governments often intervene in markets to improve welfare by taking people’s preferences as given. Such policies, however, may change people’s preferences, and can thereby have the unintended effect of decreasing welfare. This project will help to design policies that prevent such unintended effects.”
He laughs again: “To be honest, this is a very difficult exercise for researchers. If you only speak one language, you forget about the rest and it takes a great effort to phrase things differently.”
Can adds that it is very pleasant and tempting for scientists to communicate within their own language, which they see as a beautiful and very pure language. “There is no fuzziness, no ambiguity in mathematics. What I tell you in mathematics is exactly what I mean to tell you and what you understand. When I translate this mathematical language into words, my message will probably not be perceived the way I meant it, because other people’s perceptions are shaped by their own history.”
One of the factors that make it difficult for researchers to address the wider public is the fact that the academic system, not only in Maastricht but rather across the world, has forced many researchers to specialise to such an extent that their research has become almost impossible to understand for any outsider. “By specialising too deeply, researchers lose contact with broader topics. We have reached the point that some economists have never studied economic history and never heard of the philosophy of economics.”
Another fundamental reason why researchers tend to remain and communicate only within the walls of academia is that this is what they will be rewarded for and what will advance them in their career. “Our incentives are to publish in peer-reviewed journals, to win scientific grants and to receive nice teaching evaluations from our students. Many researchers do not see the point in sharing their research with the public, because this not only takes the necessary time and effort but it is also not going to be appreciated in the narrow academic system we operate in, neither in financial terms nor in emotional or any other terms.”
Nevertheless, Can notices that the environment is changing. When he applied for the VENI grant, the jury asked him how he intended to disseminate the results of his research. “I literally promised them that I would give public lectures and meet policymakers. I had worked out a detailed plan for the coming years and described in detail where I would go, with whom I would speak, with what purpose. This mindset helped a lot, they found it convincing. They saw that I was willing to take accountability for my research.”
Can sees this development as positive. “I think it’s very good that first the EU and now the NWO are putting so much emphasis on valorisation. Now people have incentives to think about why they are doing what they are doing. It also made me think about why I believed that my research was necessary and useful.”
To his colleagues who argue that researchers should concentrate on research and leave the valorisation aspect to others, he counters that as economists, they are social scientists and are not operating on the same theoretical level as quantum or theoretical physicists. “We don’t have the luxury to say that what we find may only be relevant 200 years from now.”
After winning the VENI grant, Can was contacted by the Dutch journal Economisch Statistische Berichten (ESB) with a request to write an article in Dutch about his research project. Although he found it difficult and time consuming to write in Dutch, he decided to take up the challenge because he believed that the effort would be beneficial in the long run. “ESB is not a scientific journal but it is a popular publication among policymakers. In the future I would like to find ways to apply my theoretical work to real life and at that stage I can show people that I have experience in translating the language of science into everyday language.”
On a side note, Can added that he was sorry to find out only too late that he could have asked and received help from the university’s press office in submitting his article. “Researchers are not always sufficiently aware of the facilities provided by the university to disseminate their work,” he said.
Can was one of the researchers who attended a recent talk at SBE by Johan van der Beek, a journalist from the regional newspapers Dagblad De Limburger/Limburgs Dagblad, on the mutual benefits for researchers and reporters to work together in disseminating scientific knowledge in the public sphere.
Can came forward at this gathering with a suggestion which he believes would be easy to implement. “When we submit a working paper, we need to fill in a form, indicating the name and the topic of the paper. In that form, we could be asked to write a short statement for the public press, not more than three sentences, explaining our research, not in academic but in plain language. This would be so useful for journalists because they could have a look at the statement and contact the author if they would find it interesting. We could all do that.”
Immediately putting his words into practice, he gave an example of how he would summarise his latest working paper in simple terms: “For the first time, we found a measure to distinguish a disagreement at the top of two rankings from a disagreement at the bottom of two rankings. This will allow to compare any two individuals with respect to their political opinions and to measure political polarisation in a society. Ultimately this will allow political diversity in a culture. This research even has implications for the improvement of search engines and how they rank websites when we do a search query.”
“At this point no one in the public knows about this new finding,” he commented.
Can encourages the media to attend public lectures at the university, which do not use academic language and are open to all. He will participate this month in a series of lectures on game theory offered by Studium Generale at Maastricht University.
The young researcher’s busy agenda reveals his strong commitment and sense of purpose.
“I am delivering on my promise to the NWO. I will soon give a presentation at the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and hopefully later to the Moroccan consulate. I would love to go to the Ministry of Education and explain how my research on rankings can help policymakers to design more effective policies in encouraging ethnic minorities in the Netherlands to go to better schools.”
“My research can be beneficial for the Netherlands. I live in this society and I feel somewhat responsible because I am being paid by the tax payer and I think I should give something back. It’s a personal thing. I want to be useful.”
By Sueli Brodin
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