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Harvard Profs Trying to Get Fellow Eggheads to Study Boston

"One more thing: the Boston gig's been canceled. I wouldn't worry about it, though, it's not a big college town." - Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap

Boston is College Town U.S.A., of course, resplendent with small liberal arts schools and ginormous research institutions. Yet, so much of the scholarship that goes on at these places has only a national and international scope. The areas surrounding the campuses? Not that sexy for a hustling academic with dreams of bigger titles and bigger funding. You get to the top figuring out the migratory patterns of 15th-century China, not those of 21st-century Brighton; the poverty of czarist Russia, not that of modern-day Mattapan.

Harvard sociologists Christopher Winship and Robert Sampson have launched a public campaign to turn their Greater Boston colleagues on to the possibilities of studying the ways of life (and death) in their own backyards, everything from real estate and crime to transportation and public health. The Globe's Leon Neyfakh reports:

On Oct. 21, the group will host an all-day meeting at Radcliffe entitled 'Reimagining the City-University Connection,' pulling together top academics from the Boston area and around the country with high-level city officials like the mayor's chief of staff, the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, and the superintendent-in-chief of the Boston Police Department. The goal is to figure out a way for academics and city officials here to work together,??to focus more professors' attention on the city, and to urge the city to take more advantage of the world-class researchers in their backyard.

Of course, not every academic fits the bill for the sort of research that Winship and Sampson have in mind:

For one thing, there are plenty of academics--Renaissance historians, say, or AIDS researchers focused on Africa?--?for whom it would simply make no sense to take a local focus. For another, there are several schools in the area, ?especially Northeastern University, Suffolk University, and UMass-Boston?, ?with a long tradition of working shoulder-to-shoulder with city leaders to design and test social programs and policies. The crucial thing to realize is that most of the people providing that kind of help are not producing research that is also considered groundbreaking in the academic world. Winship and Sampson are trying to recruit the people who are...

So far, City Hall has, on the surface, been receptive to the Radcliffe initiative. Mayor Menino told Neyfakh, "That brain power we have here, no other city has it." Whether this openness translates into the sort of wonky collaboration between the two sides to solve Boston's problems and plot its future remains to be seen. Previous attempts at collaborations have devolved into stereotyping: e.g. the ivory tower vs. the real world. And public officials aren't always keen on opening their books: "Harvard economist Edward Glaeser ... who has worked closely with local officials throughout Greater Boston to study zoning and housing issues, notes that there's often an instinct on the part of public agencies to guard their records closely because they don't want to make themselves vulnerable to an unflattering analysis."

Finally and perhaps most frustratingly, there's no "front door," as Winship puts it, for researchers (and journalists!) to walk through should they want to analyze City Hall's data. For all Menino's talk of transparency, much of the city's goings-on remain opaque.

Still, the academics are optimistic. If they can get tenure, we figure they can eventually crack the ivory tower-real world policy divide in Boston.

Why Don't Boston's Great Professors Study Boston? [Globe]

Full disclosure: I worked with Neyfakh at The New York Observer.
Photo of Simpsons character Professor Frink courtesy of Fox.

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