How can Universities get more activists to take-up their research?

Another day, another coffee conversation about how to ensure that academic research has impact beyond the ivory

They’re only a few miles away, so why don’t we read more of their stuff?

tower/dreaming spires. This time it was with Duncan McLaren, who has just started as a fellow Professor in Practice (is this A Thing now?) at the Lancaster Environment Centre and has been asked to look into how its research can get greater pick-up among activists. Some random thoughts, and I will try to be a bit more constructive this time, given how many people were provoked by my last post on this!

Writing v Talking: Looking around me at the LSE, I suspect that academics exert a lot of their influence not through publishing, but in person, by being invited to talk to officials and politicians, speaking and networking at events etc. If that’s true (surely it could be researched?!), then universities should rethink the kind of support they give to researchers. Elevator pitches? Cocktail party skills, like how to break in on a conversation involving your victim target decision maker? Everyone should be required to listen to Babu Rahman.

Some disciplines are better at this than others: which are the most effective policy influencers and is there anything we can learn from them? Why do so many people persist in listening to orthodox economists? Is it because they (sort of) claim to predict the future? Or use lots of equations to make themselves look like real scientists? And what could we learn from those real (natural) scientists? After all, most UK Government departments have influential chief scientific advisers, but I don’t know of any that have a social science adviser.

Riding the Wave v Creating it: One thing many academics and activists have in common is a kind of intellectual totalitarianism – they prefer complete, tidy solutions, not messy compromises. Whether on climate change or migration, both sides’ attempts to influence decision makers sometimes boils down to little more than ‘why can’t you see that I am right and change your ways?!’

Riding a metaphor

But influence often comes from riding waves, not making them – responding to critical junctures, or spotting opportunities created by processes intended for entirely different purposes (eg my colleague Jean-Paul Faguet argues that decentralization in Bolivia led to the downfall of traditional political parties). You can’t predict these waves; everyone can see them in hindsight – but the interesting bit is in between: how soon can you spot new opportunities opening up and jump in?

Timescales: The contrasting rhythms of advocacy and research are often a problem. Research takes time; advocacy needs to respond rapidly to windows of opportunity. When food prices started to go haywire at the start of this decade, we did some initial work with IDS that earned us a 3 year DFID grant for further research. Unfortunately, the advocacy spotlight moved on, but we were obliged to keep one of our smartest researchers running a programme that worked fine for IDS, but found little demand within Oxfam.

Some funders have tried to push researchers into being more responsive by attaching ‘rapid response’ budget lines to research grants, but such are the career incentives to staying on the treadmill of academic publication that these often go unused.

Caution and fear of mistakes: Great importance is attached in academia to not getting caught out. A single public take down resonates for years, permanently blighting a reputation. It’s a nasty macho side to academia that prompts people to add lots of defensive caveats, and speak in academic code rather than the vernacular, undermining their ability to communicate.

Precision v Clarity: A lot of academic writing is about being as precise as possible in definitions and use of

Typical seminar format

language. But bringing about change sometimes requires constructive ambiguity – fuzzwords that a diverse coalition can get behind, even if they understand them in different ways. That’s what political slogans are all about. The search for precision can undermine this effort or make messages more inaccessible, when it comes across as hair-splitting rather than productive clarification.

And some more standard things I bang on about:

Involve your targets: the worst (and probably most common) approach is to write your paper. then asl ‘right, who should read this?’ and send it to them. That kind of extreme supply-led approach is much less effective than involving your ‘targets’ in designing the research, commenting on drafts etc. That will both get their buy-in, and ensure the end result might be vaguely relevant to them.

Open Access: This shouldn’t need repeating, but no-one outside academia pays to read articles. If you publish behind a paywall, you’re essentially showing two fingers to the non academic world and saying ‘Don’t care – I only write for my peers’.

Building Bridges

Ok, so how can we improve matters? Neither academia nor NGOs are monoliths. Sitting uncomfortably in the overlapping bit of the Venn diagram are the unfortunately-named ‘pracademics’. On the NGO side, there are PhDs who still keep reading and networking with their academic colleagues; on the academic side, people do consultancies or volunteer their services and advice to a range of activist organizations.  How do we expand and support them?

  • Recognition: how could we do this in a way that pushes back against the pressure to feed the journal beast in academia, or the cult of busyness in the NGOs?
  • Training and immersion: Pracademics could get 2 weeks a year to catch up on their reading or write a paper based on their experience, perhaps based at and mentored by a sympathetic university. On the academic side, anyone claiming to be an activist should spend the same amount of time actually trying to influence policy, for example in an NGO advocacy team.

Other suggestions?

[Thanks to ace pracademic Jo Rowlands for comments on an earlier draft]

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10 Responses to “How can Universities get more activists to take-up their research?”
  1. There’s lots more to write, but as a busy academic my bureaucratic responsibilities are piling up on my desk at the moment…I think this is one of the most important posts to question the need for ‘Think Tanks’ in the 21st century…Why do we need them if academics are already (and should be doing more of it) skipping much of the middle person and go directly to the ‘consumer’?

  2. No, not a howler from academia……promise…

    But this morning’s blog doesn’t do justice to the nature of the issue (it’s not linear take-up) or the good stuff that is happening, despite structural constraints on both sides!
    1. GCRF and Impact has changed the tenor. I’ve seen mass training in theories of change – but the problem was that mass training in theory wasn’t what was needed, it needed a more practical, iterative approach too allow for the context and complexity of different projects.
    2. You need funding structures that allow us to ride the wave – they need to be flexible and give contingency for that moment when our research suddenly has resonance – both in money and time terms.
    3. Open access. So much more is being done, but it is expensive and needs more funding. Only research council funded research projects are being supported to be open access.
    4. The constraints are not only on the academic side – where organisations are so tightly tied into particular priorities and funding parameters, it can be very difficult to engage them. I’m working on an issue that is finding huge resonance among grass-roots and frontline practitioners – urban violence and climate change – but it is hard for them to work with me on it when the top-down structures tie them into working around different silos.
    5. There are plenty of good examples. I’ve witnessed researchers being embedded in local governments in South Africa, the University of Cape Town producing a book out of exactly the kind of pracademic experience you describe, colleagues of mine at UCL and KCL have run workshops in recent weeks about the ethics and practice of co-producing research….Let’s explore these initiatives, and the results they produced.
    6. And we have to respect that some scientific research is blue skies and won’t feed the instant needs of policy makers and NGO-ers. While I agree with your point about social science, especially the qualitative stuff, (although geography has interestingly recently been professionalised in the civil service and there are now departmental ‘geography’ champions) there are tensions between immanent knowledge and critical, reflexive knowledge that challenges our assumptions and values and is less easily ‘taken up’ (see brilliant Chapter 6 in Frances Cleaver’s Development Through Bricolage).

    The journal beast will not go away – and one could argue there is a need for ways of benchmarking research quality and output – but there are plenty more chinks in the armour.
    [I’d write a blog – but I have to finish my REF submission first!]


    • Beth

      Hi Arry, What are the examples of co-producing research you’ve seen? Can you share? Also interested in the training you mention your colleagues run, anything you could share? I’m a geographer moving from a decade in NGOs and politics back in to a half/half academia; focussing on co-production/co-creation of solutions and bedding them in to practice at the same time so would appreciate the help! Thanks

  3. Hi Duncan
    So sorry that the FPV work tied up your best researcher and added nothing to Oxfam’s advocacy campaigns. I do recall telling you at the time that the interest in food price volatility was likely to wain, and you assured me that it would not. Prices promptly dropped and the world’s (and Oxfam’s) attention moved on. We had designed the research to support Oxfam’s GROW campaign in country, and that meant compromises that has made it hard to publish in journals, even if the research was fascinating. We did build a lot of research capacity and in several countries our researchers have used the findings to influence national policies and practice. But perhaps your bugbear is that it didn’t score Oxfam any big wins? One lesson I have taken from the experience is that it is more important to do rigorous research and policy-relevant issues to as high a scholarly standard as possible. If that supports advocacy that is great. But research is not the same as advocacy and nor should it be. Looking forward to continuing the debate …

    • Duncan Green

      Fair comment Naomi, I personally thought the research you and others did was great and needed doing, but not sure Oxfam needed to be involved (with the luxury of hindsight of course)

      • gawain kripke

        Hi both,
        I stand by the project, acknowledging both comments. Not every project can – or should – result in clear advocacy support, nor policy outcome. Everything we do in this field is speculative and, as such, a percentage will not succeed. But everything can build knowledge, add value.

  4. I’ve been connecting with a variety of university folks in on-line conversations on Twitter. Take a look at #engageMOOC #unboundeq and a few others that I point to on this concept map.

    These are potential models for ways researchers can engage with people who might put the research into practice. However, they require an on-going effort on the part of researchers.

    Maybe some of your readers already have their favorite on-line meeting places and will share them via additional comments.

  5. On writing versus talking, I did some research which found that in Indonesia, university based academics (not necessarily the donor funded research institutes) are generally invited by civil servants (when they want research, which isn’t always the case) to attend seminars and ‘focus group discussions’ to give their opinion on an issue. More details in this post here:

  6. Kate Simpson

    Thanks for this – I spent 10 years in academia grumbling about why practitioners weren’t more interested in quality research. Once out of academia I was blown away to discover just how hard it is as a practitioner to get access to published research – it is a massive and basic barrier that we really should be able to solve