On my way to Berlin


ischools iconI’m on my way to Berlin this week for the 2014 iSchools Conference, or “iConference,” dealing with all sorts of crunchy information infrastructure, history, and labor issues.  This is my first time participating in this conference, as our UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies just officially became an iSchool fairly recently.  I’ll be hanging out with my colleagues Kristin Eschenfelder and Kalpana Shankar at the first poster session, pondering the history and geography of social science data archives.  Thanks to Ingrid Erickson and Bonnie Mak for both inviting me to participate in two other interesting events, one at the start of the conference and one at the end!

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 gdowney@wisc.edu!

Media Technologies book now available from MIT Press

Just out from MIT PressMedia Technologies — Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society.  A fantastic group of scholars came together to produce this volume in a truly collaborative way.  Includes a chapter by me on “Making Media Work: Time, Space, Identity, and Labor in the Analysis of Information and Communication Infrastructures.”  (I think I won the award for longest chapter title.)  Available on Amazon.com and wherever interesting scholarly books are sold.

Media Technologies
Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society

Edited by Tarleton GillespiePablo J. Boczkowski and Kirsten A. Foot

In recent years, scholarship around media technologies has finally shed the assumption that these technologies are separate from and powerfully determining of social life, looking at them instead as produced by and embedded in distinct social, cultural, and political practices. Communication and media scholars have increasingly taken theoretical perspectives originating in science and technology studies (STS), while some STS scholars interested in information technologies have linked their research to media studies inquiries into the symbolic dimensions of these tools. In this volume, scholars from both fields come together to advance this view of media technologies as complex sociomaterial phenomena.

The contributors first address the relationship between materiality and mediation, considering such topics as the lived realities of network infrastructure. The contributors then highlight media technologies as always in motion, held together through the minute, unobserved work of many, including efforts to keep these technologies alive.

Pablo J. Boczkowski, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Finn Brunton, Gabriella Coleman, Gregory J. Downey, Kirsten A. Foot, Tarleton Gillespie, Steven J. Jackson, Christopher M. Kelty, Leah A. Lievrouw, Sonia Livingstone, Ignacio Siles, Jonathan Sterne, Lucy Suchman, Fred Turner

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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Interdisciplinarity, Innovation, and the Future of the Research University (Spring 2014 graduate seminar)


STS 903
Special Topics in Science and Technology Studies:
Interdisciplinarity, Innovation, and the Future of the Research University

Spring 2014
Friday mornings 9:00AM – 11:30AM
Sewell Social Sciences Building 6117

A special NSF-funded seminar, team-taught by three UW-Madison professors:
Greg Downey (Journalism & Mass Communication, Library & Information Studies)
Noah Feinstein (Curriculum and Instruction)
Daniel L. Kleinman (Community and Environmental Sociology)

What is “interdisciplinary” research and why does it matter? How should “innovation” in the modern research university be defined? How do interdisciplinary and innovative practices compare across different modes of research, from the natural, physical, and social sciences to the arts and humanities? And how do institutional norms, physical spaces, and political-economic structures of power and opportunity affect both interdisciplinary and innovative research?

This graduate seminar, team-taught by three faculty affiliates of the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, explores the diverse meanings and practices of both “interdisciplinary” and “innovation” in the modern research university. Drawing on scholarship from history, sociology, public policy, anthropology, education, science studies and communication studies, this seminar itself will serve as an example of an innovative and interdisciplinary practice.

Besides engaging in weekly discussions and written analyses of course readings, students will each produce a final review, policy, or research paper in a way that is appropriate and useful to their own graduate research program. And students will have the opportunity to present their work at an upcoming NSF-funded UW-Madison workshop on the innovative and interdisciplinary issues surrounding the establishment of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.