Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Open Society Advocates Urge Academic-Public Links

September 7, 2010

While knowledge is more accessible than ever before, it has not sufficiently seeped out of academic circles to benefit the public, according to two members of the Open Society Foundation who spoke at the Watson Institute last week.

When it piles up in “ivory towers,” knowledge with huge potential for society is partially wasted, said Voldemar Tomusk and George Sharvashidze, who work for one of the foundations initially established by billionaire investor George Soros to facilitate countries’ transition to democracy.

Their remarks sparked a larger debate about the diffusion of academia’s benefits in a rapidly evolving world, during the discussion titled “Knowledge Networks and Empowering Publics.”

“We have this responsibility to bring knowledge back to the public… because otherwise we accumulate knowledge and we’re as miserable as we have ever been,” said Tomusk, deputy director of OSF’s International Higher Education Support Program. “We’re never able to put knowledge to proper use for our society.”

Drawing on examples from Russia, Nepal, and Georgia, he said an increase in education has rarely translated into a strengthening of society. 

“It’s quite worrying when you go to countries like Russia, which has a massive higher education system and a very long history of learning,” said Tomusk. “The learned people are in their little enclave.” 

But educating promising youth remains the surest way to benefit struggling states, they said – if new skills are properly reinvested into society. The International Higher Education Support Program offers financial and technological assistance to individuals and institutions, with a focus on humanities and social sciences, which they said was crucial.

“It’s important to create those important islands of academia,” said Sharvashidze, who directs the program’s academic fellowships. “How can you make any change in any country without having expertise and educated hands?”

The audience also jumped in to mull the relevance of academia outside its exclusive circle. 

“Some kinds of education might be better suited to figuring out the translation from that elite private sphere to the public sphere,” said Watson Institute Director Michael D. Kennedy. 

“But those projects may not be the ones that are going to solve the financial crisis or address the shrinking of the Aral Sea,” he added. “So how is it that we identify priorities?” 

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11