Redefining Academic Responsibility in the Face of Global Challenges

July 03, 2024

As legal frameworks struggle to keep pace with rapid technological advances and evolving societal norms, the urgency of linking academic research to real-world societal issues has never been greater. The field of law significantly benefits from the critical insights provided by researchers. We caught up with Anselm Küsters, who has just been awarded the Ludwig Erhard Prize for Economics Writing (Ludwig-Erhard-Förderpreis für Wirtschaftspublizistik). We talked to him about the need for experts to amplify their voices, the feedback his articles have generated, and his knack for finding topics that interest both academic and social audiences.

Anselm, it appears that researchers are often hesitant to influence policy on societal issues. Why do you think this is the case, and do you believe this should change?

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My perspective is deeply influenced by the traditional German academic attitude towards Max Weber’s thesis of ‘value neutrality’ (Werturteilsfreiheit) as a practical postulate of science. The historical context of Nazi Germany has rightly made us wary of activist science. While I believe that researchers have a vital role to play in contributing to evidence-based policy-making, this inherent caution, or methodological conservatism, has its merits and is generally worth preserving. However, the major crises of the past few years, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, have changed my views on this issue somewhat. When the integrity of evidence-based discourse, trust in science and human rights are at stake, there is a compelling case for researchers to take a more active role in shaping policy. This is significantly different from merely expressing personal preferences on specific issues, such as tax rates. Historically, the debate dates back to the pre-World War I discussions among members of the Verein für Socialpolitik, such as Werner Sombart and Gustav Schmoller, on whether normativity should play a role in advising policy. One challenge within contemporary economics, a field in which much of my research is situated, is the tendency to overlook its inherent normative aspects and to assume that all economic research is purely positive, which it is not. Rather than assuming this binary function, transparency about assumptions, underlying theories and personal biases is crucial to advance the discipline.

What inspires you to regularly publish on current societal issues?

Firstly, it’s really fun! Particularly in fields such as history, where you are often dealing with ancient debates and texts, it can be very motivating to find parallels and differences with contemporary issues, topics and debates. It might also enrich your dinner conversation. The practice is academically rewarding, too, as connecting my specific research interests to the broader political discourse and current social issues reveals new parallels and intriguing ideas. It forces me to rethink how I communicate and create compelling narratives. Finally, it is also nice to have small successes during a larger research project with guest articles in newspapers or relatively short policy briefs. It is much harder to work for years on a single book without being able to celebrate small publication successes from time to time.

How do you identify which aspects of your research are most relevant to society?

I set aside time each day to read newspapers and essays on current affairs. I do not mean the short, click-bait-focused news snippets, but rather the in-depth, longer articles found in high-quality print newspapers and online essays on specialised blogs. Selecting the appropriate media content and authors to follow is essential but challenging, especially as academics also need to keep up with journal articles and books, which should still make up the majority of our reading. However, once you establish a routine and find a good mix of news sources, it becomes quite intuitive to make connections between these discourses and your research. In my experience, at least, it gets smoother over time. This process is certainly easier for researchers who, like me, focus on issues such as economic policy, competition law or technological change than for colleagues working on less frequently discussed topics.

What challenges have you faced in translating complex scientific concepts for a general audience?

Translating complex scientific concepts for a general audience is a humbling experience, as it is often much more difficult than communicating findings to a peer group of experts. Crafting a compelling narrative and avoiding technical jargon that can obscure meaning is crucial. My research into the history of the EU, where the European Commission is known for its particular ‘language’ that few outside Brussels understand, has taught me a lot about this process. As well as creating compelling narratives, the task therefore also involves a form of translation. Historians are uniquely equipped for this dual challenge. We learn early on the power of narrative and understand that the study of history is not just about telling how things were, but also about telling stories in the literal sense. This is a skill that can be learnt, and I believe it can also improve academic writing and research. 

Interview: Bastian von Jarzebowski


About Anselm Küsters

Anselm Küsters is Head of the Department of Digitisation/New Technologies at the Centre for European Policy (cep) in Berlin. He continues to work in the field of Digital Humanities as an affiliated researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory in Frankfurt am Main and as a post-doctoral researcher at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His current research uses Natural Language Processing to analyse and classify discourses on technology from a historical perspective. Anselm holds a doctorate from Goethe University Frankfurt am Main (Dr. Phil.) and studied Economic and Social History at the University of Oxford, UK (M.Phil.), European Law at the University of Würzburg (LL.M.), and History, German Literature, and Economics at the University of Heidelberg (B.A. and B.Sc.).

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