Global Development Institute Blog

David Hulme is Executive Director of Brooks World Poverty Institute, CEO of ESID Research Centre, and Professor of Development Studies

 A recent keynote I delivered at the University of Oslo asked me to think about the role of academics in society…so I mulled on ‘should academics change the world’?

There is a general moral argument that all human beings whose needs are secure should seek to reduce the suffering of other human beings – that the poor in any part of the world should be assisted by those with the means to help them. From this perspective, if an academic’s work can help individuals, groups or states, they have a responsibility to provide assistance.

But, maybe the better-off have a moral duty to assist the poor and disadvantaged. The better off (probably you and certainly me) may have gained from the labour and poor working conditions of the less well-off so have benefitted from their disadvantage and suffering. Thus, we have a duty to help them as the economic and political structures that advantage the better-off have created and maintain extreme poverty.

As well as moral arguments and altruism, there is also a more self-interested argument. The better-offs should assist the poor to maintain and improve their own wellbeing, to improve local and national social cohesion, and to reduce the incentives for excluded groups to threaten social and economic stability. On a small planet where we are all connected physically and ideationally, it would be foolish not to – look at Ebola, illegal migration, drug running and narco-states.

Increasingly there is a pressure on academics to demonstrate that their research automatically improves human wellbeing. Universities, however, are more than instruments to achieve short and medium term economic and social targets. Focussing too narrowly on short-term research could take away from ‘blue sky’ research which is essential for long-term human progress. There is a growing danger of instrumentality, where research is not seeking new knowledge but being used to measure and monitor. This leads to box ticking and short-termism rather than the genuine pursuit of socially useful knowledge.

Whilst I remain convinced that academics should try to make the world a better place, it is important to note that one cannot always predict the consequences of new knowledge. The key thing is that the change must strive to be progressive. For example, splitting the atom was a great achievement, but has led to the existence of nuclear weapons alongside nuclear medicine that can save lives. If academics take the decision to try to change the world, they need to argue their case well, and to know how to create the right kind of change effectively.