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

November 30, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

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

University of Oxford
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 waves
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

Wrestling moves
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]