While academia is about more than just affecting policy, the ability and opportunity to inform policy makers about some of the better ways forward certainly does not hurt. This year, as with every year for the past 10, a group of academic researchers convened for the annual GigaNet Conference, which is held on Day Zero of the Internet Governance Forum (IFG). This year, João Pessoa in Brazil played host.
IGF 2015 is special because it is the last year of the original UN-granted mandate that gave the convention life. It is also GigaNet’s decennial year. The GigaNet Conference covered a host of topics, ranging from how Internet governance should include all stakeholders, to what is happening with the so-called WSIS + 10 review, to issues of online trust and the management of critical Internet resources.
Brilliant ideas were shared on these worthy topics. The meeting ended with a session that posed a simple question to all those in attendance: what should GigaNet do in the next 10 years to make it an even more worthwhile endeavour? Several concrete recommendations were put forward ¾ all of which will move GigaNet forward as an organization.
While returning to my hotel room, once Day Zero had wrapped up, I was struck by an idea of what GigaNet really needs to accomplish if it is to be of use to the wider community. On the bus ride, I was talking with a government representative from a liberal-democratic country (I am intentionally vague here to protect this person’s identity) and we chatted about how we had each spent Day Zero. I told this person that I spent it at GigaNet. With a smirk, this person looked at me and said plainly, “Well, that is not really my scene.”
This person meant, of course, that the academic research being discussed and debated for an entire day was basically of no use to civil servants trying to make decisions on important Internet governance policy. This disjunction is, to say the least, highly problematic.
Social science research is done best when it is policy-relevant. Other types of research are valuable for different reasons, but, on balance, my view is that social science should help inform people about how the social world works. Such a simple idea can actually involve some really profound insights and these ought to be of incredible use to people who are trying to make decisions about how, for example, the Internet ought to be governed. In this regard, GigaNet is failing.
I did not know everyone in the room during the event, but I would bet that there was no one from government in attendance. There were certainly individuals from the private sector (who make clear governance decisions in the field of multi-stakeholder Internet governance). But, for the most part, the conference descended into a talk shop by academics for academics. This is unfortunate, and misses opportunity, when there are literally thousands of other Internet governance stakeholders mere feet away.
Though it is a day late and a pound short, I finally have an answer to the question posed on Day Zero: GigaNet should try to make itself more policy-relevant. It should try to inform policy makers more, particularly in government, but also in the private sector and the technical community. This goal can be accomplished by using policy relevance as a selection criteria for the acceptance of papers to the conference agenda. It can also be accomplished by leveraging personal connections to ensure government representatives attend their events.
For GigaNet to move forward, it ought to try to have a more concrete effect on policy makers of all stripes.