Defending media research in the public interest

For those of you who have watched me cancel meetings and defer obligations this week, citing an unspecified “media crisis” having to do with my role as Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, wonder no longer.  I was involved in defending the work of my colleague and friend, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Lewis Friedland, in trying to uncover the critical information needs of underserved localities and social groups.  Today Lew published a superb analysis of the situation in the Washington Post:

Sometimes research takes on a life of its own and becomes more like a Rorschach test for a national policy controversy. That’s what’s happened to a review of the literature on the critical information needs of American communities that I and colleagues from around the country conducted for the Federal Communications Commission in July 2012. The recommendations of the review informed a proposed pilot study in Columbia, S.C., of what, if any, critical information needs citizens have and whether they are being met in our rapidly changing media environment.

To conservative media from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, this was an attempt to reintroduce the now-lapsed Fairness Doctrine and for President Obama to take control of America’s newsrooms. Other former journalists and media critics apparently agreed. Still others took a more nuanced view – that this may not have been a government plot, but that it would be a waste of money, because either we already know what these needs are, or, there aren’t any, or if there are, we can’t know what they are.

In the end, the underlying theme was: we already know the answers. Americans either have no needs or none that the market is not meeting or can’t meet. Don’t do research. Don’t ask these questions.

Click over to our department weblog Mediated Communication to read the rest of Lew’s important essay.  It’s well worth your time.

The UW-Madison “Letters & Science Advantage” (with video!)

What does the Letters & Science advantage mean to me?  See how a current student, a recent alum, and a seasoned professor (that would be me) answer that question in a cool little two-and-a-half minute student-produced video, now available on the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science Career Services home page (and also on YouTube, yikes).

(See Professor Downey check his email on his iPad mini!  Marvel at Professor Downey’s wide range of classroom gestures and facial expressions!  Gasp as he misstates the name of the College of Letters and Science as “Letters and Sciences”!)


P.S. — Any faculty interested in participating in the one-credit online internship course that I mention in this video should feel free to email me at!

Not just “Discovery to Product” (D2P), but also “Knowledge to Action” (K2A)

About a month ago, UW-Madison announced a new initiative: “Discovery to Product,” shorthanded as “D2P”.  From the official web site:

The initiative is intended to provide UW–Madison faculty and students with an easy-to-access gateway to a comprehensive suite of resources to help transform ideas and discovery into companies and products to bolster Wisconsin’s economy.

This kind of effort, understood both here and at other universities as falling under the broad concept of “technology transfer,” sets the public research university in a particular relationship with both its sponsoring state government and its private market environment.  The idea is that the innovations that emerge from the public research university — whose people and infrastructure are financed by a $2.8 billion mix of funds from citizen tax dollars (17%), individual tuition payments (16%), competitive grant awards (31%), philanthropic gifts (18%), and revenue-generating enterprises (13%), among other sources — should have both public impacts and private benefits beyond the reach of the campus.  Bringing these innovations to market is supposed to generate three positive results:

  1. For innovations that can be moved to the private sector — as a new startup company delivering a particular service, or as a new bit of intellectual property licensed as a temporary patent, say — the assumption is that the market is the most efficient way for the innovation to have a quick and profound impact on society.  In the case of medical devices or new drug therapies, for example, speeding interventions to vulnerable populations is an important public health goal.  (Incidentally, this is the mission of the non-profit Morgridge Institute for Research, a formal partner with the UW-Madison Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.)
  2. State sponsors of higher education hope that through the participation of private capital, there will be spin-off benefits of economic growth in the form of new firms, new jobs, new development, new revenue to shareholders, and — from the state’s point of view — new sources of tax revenue and community stability.  So as a public research university sponsored by a particular state and situated in a particular city and county, UW-Madison is obliged to do what it can to help nurture the economic environment upon which it depends and from which it benefits.
  3. And finally, it is usually expected that some portion of the resulting private profit will return to the university itself, through licensing arrangements, to fund further research in the future — even providing a “cross-subsidy” to forms of research that aren’t as economically lucrative, such as in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  (And the sponsoring state may hope that the resulting surplus can reduce its own funding burden even more.)

Here at UW-Madison, this “discovery to product” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has long been mediated by a particular actor, the non-profit Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.  WARF was founded in the 1920s to bring UW-Madison professor Harry Steenbock’s Vitamin D process to market.  But as UW-Madison professor Rima Apple has shown in her history of WARF’s founding, the motivation for creating this outside organization was not only to capture licensing revenues for future UW research, but also to ensure that Vitamin D was produced responsibly and safely (and in a way that protected the Wisconsin dairy industry).  Along these lines, here at UW-Madison, the “D2P” relationship between the university, the state, and the market has been guided by a particular normative ideal, which we call the Wisconsin Idea, or “the principle that the university should improve people’s lives beyond the classroom.”  So today our D2P efforts are being coordinated through WARF and branded under the Wisconsin Idea.

Such a D2P initiative is exciting and well-intentioned.  But I have a concern about it that comes from my own experience as both a faculty member and a department chair here at UW-Madison — and from recent conversations with campus colleagues in places as diverse as the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies, the Madison Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America, and the Center for Nonprofits.  I believe it takes nothing away from the importance and urgency of this new “Discovery to Product” effort to realize that, at the same time, not all discoveries result in products, and not all impacts of the public research university can (or should) flow through the market.  What’s more, the very political-economic environment which makes the D2P route so attractive to university, state, and market actors may at the same time be making it harder for knowledge innovations to get “out in the wild” through a different but equally important channel: the non-profit sector.

I argue that besides “Discovery to Product” in the for-profit sector, UW-Madison and its many stakeholders need to support “Knowledge to Action” in the non-profit sector.

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Ten things to consider if you find your research, teaching, or service under political attack

Today I breathed a long sigh of relief. For nearly a month I have been engaged in an all-out defense of a collaboration between my School of Journalism & Mass Communication (where I currently serve as Director) and the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (which occupies two offices in our building in exchange for regular and close collaboration with their professional reporters in our classrooms, plus guaranteed paid reporting internships for our students). That collaboration came under acute legislative attack in early June, but today we found out that the crisis is finally over; the Wisconsin Governor himself ended the attack (for now) with a line-item veto. In short, we won.

Many of my colleagues have already started to ask me “How did you folks do it?”  To be honest, I’m still processing this whole episode both emotionally and analytically, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that yet.  In fact, I’m not sure I ever will; I’m a historian and so I’m trained to understand these sorts of things as contingent events shaped both by long-term patterns of power (a polarized political environment, a difficult economic crisis, and an overt media strategy of attacking public service workers as “takers” rather than “makers”) and by short-term contingencies of possibility (one actor’s political ambitions, another actor’s media saavy, and maybe a third actor’s axe to grind). But I think maybe the best way for me to try to make sense of all this is to write my way through it in a blog post, with the goal of distilling some things for my colleagues to remember if they ever find themselves in a similar situation.  Please be warned, this is a first draft and subject to revision without warning.  But if you’re looking for some details, some speculation, and maybe even some inspiration, read on.

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Defending academic freedom and investigative reporting

(Largely reposted from the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where I currently serve as Director, but there’s a new bit at the end, which frankly I’ve edited a couple of times now as I try to gather my thoughts together.  In any case, don’t miss the WCIJ response and the official UW-Madison response too. I will collect other press at the SJMC blog Mediated Communication as it emerges. And Emily Eggleston’s Storify on the crisis is a good primer.)

My name is Greg Downey and I am the current Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication (SJMC) at UW-Madison. Today I learned that the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin state legislature adopted the following motion into the proposed state budget last night or this morning:

Center for Investigative Journalism. Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.

Some background: A few years ago, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison entered into an innovative collaboration with our colleagues at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting and a new non-profit and non-partisan professional investigative news organization, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( SJMC houses the WCIJ, and the WCIJ provides paid internships for SJMC students.

wisconsinwatchIn only three short years, this award-winning collaboration has resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of both investigative reporting and public-interest data that is available to the people and businesses of Wisconsin. More importantly, this valuable information is made available not only through a central website, but through the free distribution of high-quality investigative news reports to private for-profit and non-profit news outlets across both the state of Wisconsin and the country at large.

The motion passed today by the JFC directly targets this collaboration, and as the current SJMC Director it is my judgment that SJMC, and UW-Madison, must oppose both provisions of the motion.

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Adventures in print (and digital) culture

This summer I was appointed as the new Director of the UW-Madison Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture.  Originally founded 20 years ago as a partnership between the School of Library & Information Studies, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, the Center is currently made up of an eclectic group of scholars, professionals and students who are committed to studying the ways that print and paper, text and image, ideas and inspiration flow through both “old media” like physical books, newspapers, and magazines and, increasingly, the “new media” of digital codes, networks and devices, as they intertwine with the political, economic, and cultural lives of different groups in different times and places.  The Center holds a series of regular colloquia in the SLIS Commons, hosts a biennial international conference on the culture of print right here on campus every other fall, and publishes a series of monographs and edited volumes through the University of Wisconsin Press.  I’m excited about the opportunity to help lead this effort over the next few years.

I’m also excited to announce that the latest book in the Center’s series is now available.   Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print was co-edited by Rima D. Apple, Stephen L. Vaughn, and yours truly, based on the Center’s 2008 biennial conference,  The Culture of Print in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine.  Here’s the blurb:

Ever since the threads of seventeenth-century natural philosophy began to coalesce into an understanding of the natural world, printed artifacts such as laboratory notebooks, research journals, college textbooks, and popular paperbacks have been instrumental to the development of what we think of today as “science.” But just as the history of science involves more than recording discoveries, so too does the study of print culture extend beyond the mere cataloguing of books. In both disciplines, researchers attempt to comprehend how social structures of power, reputation, and meaning permeate both the written record and the intellectual scaffolding through which scientific debate takes place.  Science in Print brings together scholars from the fields of print culture, environmental history, science and technology studies, medical history, and library and information studies. This ambitious volume paints a rich picture of those tools and techniques of printing, publishing, and reading that shaped the ideas and practices that grew into modern science, from the days of the Royal Society of London in the late 1600s to the beginning of the modern U.S. environmental movement in the early 1960s.

Finally, I would like to invite all UW-Madison students, faculty, and staff to check out the Center’s conference this semester, Protest on the Page: Print Culture History in Opposition to Almost Anything* (*you can think of), taking place September 28-30 at the Pyle Center right here on campus.  (Believe it or not, the conference theme was chosen well before Madison once again became a national crucible for the modern political-economic public protest over the last 18 months.)  The conference includes a free public lecture on Friday, September 28, at 5:30 p.m., by keynote speaker Victor Navasky (publisher emeritus of The Nation) on the topic “The Case for Protest: verbal and visual, noisy and silent, legal and illegal, overt and covert, and other forms too numerous to mention.”  Hope to see you there!