My Brain for the Picking?

Recently I was approached by an NGO that deals primarily with the public sector and invited to give a lecture about an area of my expertise to a visiting group of overseas public servants. I responded that I was interested and would be willing to modify a lecture I give my public management students about that topic to address the interests of the overseas public servants. I asked for my normal speaking fee.

The convener of the visit responded that the mission was being funded on a cost recovery basis and there was no money to cover my speaking fee. Put differently, they were unwilling or unable to include my fee in their cost base. I declined the invitation.

In declining the invitation, I made the point that I receive public funding from my university salary and research grants from public sector organizations (especially the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) to create knowledge that is embodied in publications that are in the public domain. When approached by practitioners wanting to pick my brain, either in a group presentation or an individual conversation, I make them aware of my research in the public domain. If they want me to go farther by discussing the implications of my work for their particular situation, then I will charge for my time. Sometimes this leads to a speaking or consulting contract, and sometimes this is the end of the conversation.

Reflecting on my interaction with the NGO, I re-examined my premises and thought about cases in my own or other people’s experience. One case that comes to mind is Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, who charges hefty fees for speeches to or consulting with hedge funds. The knowledge Summers is conveying is a private benefit and the hedge funds can well afford to pay his fees (which are orders of magnitude greater than mine).

What about cases where the beneficiaries of applied research are in the public sector and cannot afford to pay Summers’s gargantuan per diems, or perhaps even my much more modest fees?

In this instance, the public servants and I do not share citizenship. While their country’s per capita GDP is considerable less than Canada’s, it is not an aid recipient, so making a presentation to them would not be a matter of my helping those who, globally, are most in need, something the ethicist Peter Singer strongly advocates.

What if the group I was invited to address were Canadian public servants? I am sure that there are colleagues who would agree to speak to or advise them without charging a fee. Their rationales might be that they see this as their duty as a citizen, that they want to have influence on public policy, and that they don’t need the money.

I have participated in forums convened by public servants to hear a variety of academic opinions about a topic of interest to the public servants, and received no compensation other than travel cost. Looking back on those forums, one of the benefits for me was hearing the views of, and having contact with, my academic colleagues, which warranted volunteering my time.

But in a setting where public servants want my expertise alone, I think it is warranted to charge. Perhaps if they know they are paying to hear me, they will take my presentation more seriously than if it is free. As one who is a parent of teenagers and who is working full-time, my circumstances are different from those of my retired empty nester colleagues who are receiving pensions, and who might treat advising government as one of a variety of opportunities for volunteering.

Finally, I’ll mention two contexts in which I don’t think it is right to charge for one’s time. Scholars present their research to other colleagues and expect to receive only their travel and lodging costs. As academic colleagues we are sharing knowledge and benefiting from other colleagues’ responses to our ideas. Media interviews – up to a point – are an opportunity to communicate our ideas to the broader public. Granting bodies expect that we will do this, and I see it as an appropriate use of a researcher’s time.

After examination, I conclude that there are situations when I’m willing to have my brain picked – despite the inelegance of the phrase – gratis but that there are others, such as the recent approach by the NGO, in which it is reasonable to ask for compensation.


  1. I appreciate your candor in presenting your thoughts on this issue.

    I myself take a different perspective, one that is not shared by many (I would not claim any sense of “majority”) faculty members.

    Our salary as tenured faculty is not a “lecture fee”. Our responsibilities are far broader than even “advising students” and “publishing” — though these are the typical job announcement standards.

    Our job descriptions and employment reviews also generally involve an aspect referred to as “service.” While this is often defined as on-campus activity, most universities also encourage off-campus involvements of some sort (particularly those that are news-worthy).

    One could well argue that for those who receive salaries from public institutions or private institutions with significant governmental support, the need for public service is all the greater.

    Ultimately, decisions on when/where to volunteer time is extremely personal. There’s certainly nothing wrong (absent specific employment restrictions) to receiving outside compensation for work done outside of standard employment. On the other hand, the codes of ethics in most working professions dictate some degree of donated professional service. Should scholars do less?

    Again, thanks for raising the question and sharing your perspectives.

    Rob Dickey
    School of Public Service, Keimyung University, S. Korea
    (former NGO executive and volunteers manager)

    • I too disagree but from a slightly different angle, one that derives from a critique of the marketisation of knowledge and learning. Our education Act defines the role of universities (unsurprisingly) as the creation and dissemination of knowledge. That’s our social purpose. Lecturing, research and so on after that are mere artifacts of workplace organisation.

      We’re paid public dollars to fulfil our social purpose – and my specialism happens to be in government and governing. I regard myself (a view not entirely shared by my employer) as having an obligation to share the benefits of my highly privileged position. I’m often asked to contribute to public and in-house practitioner discussions. Our NGO sector is very poorly funded by government so my work for them is always pro bono. If a public agency wants a one-off, I’ll usually do that for free. If it wants something more sustained and which demands use of university or school resources, then I’ll work out a cost-recovery arrangement on their behalf. But my time will be free.

      I guess it comes down ultimately to recognition that my position as a pubicly-paid academic carries social obligations. Personal passions for democratic and effective public management and policy provide the rest of my motivation.

      Assoc Professor Bill Ryan
      School of Government
      Victoria University of Wellington/Te Whare Wananga o te Upoko o te Ika a Maui

  2. I agree that a certain amount of public speaking is a form of professional service that I have always done without seeking additional compensation. I don’t think the principal blog post disagrees with that.

    I feel differently about speaking at certain conferences with substantial fees for attendees, particularly when the conveners profit from the events and my speaking requires fresh preparation and travel away from home. Depending on the particulars, that may well go beyond my sense of appropriate gratis public service, and be a suitable occasion for negotiated compensation for my time and effort.

    The question of how best to organize venues and formats for sharing information with practitioners, and whether this can be accomplished without hiring professional entities to manage the events (for a fee, not provided gratis) is a good one, but not one to which I have given any great thought.

    I am also reminded of the adage that service is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. My experience is that I have been treated better and with more respect and seriousness when my talks have been compensated rather than when given as “freebies.” This is not invariably the case, but it has been true often enough.

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