Activating Research: Do We Need a New Approach to Teaching Public Policy?

November 20, 2019 | By Robert Roussel 

A great idea is a terrible thing to waste, and people do it all the time. 

In academia and policy institutions, research is often regarded as a key analytical asset. However, research alone has limited utility. Research needs to be resourced with practices and structures in order for that research to be activated, iterated upon, and deployed. Failing to do so shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of research—a failure to understand that research is a means and not an end. This approach begins with how we train students and I worry that, all too often, academic training has entrenched problematic approaches to teaching aspiring professionals what the value of research actually is.

I went to graduate school to learn how to evaluate and implement public policies, which, at the end of the day, was about translating statistics and analysis into writing. My peers and I considered writing both our biggest pain point and our most powerful asset. I was reminded of this recently as I sorted through old papers and memos to pick a writing sample when applying for a job that would, in part, pay me to write. I started remembering all of the topics and arguments I had so eloquently and passionately inked onto a digital page. Undeniably, my graduate program taught us how to write and think logically and persuasively but as I perused my hard drive for old papers, I could not shake the feeling that my new ‘ideal’ job at a think tank — the one I’ve been wanting for years — would relegate my writing to a fate similar to my academic exercises: gathering dust, and longing for eyeballs.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

To businesses and consultancies, the idea that research without applications is useless is obvious. In academia, this culture is not always the norm. At Georgetown, I had the privilege of practicing valuable quantitative and analytical skills through thoughtful exercises led by experts in their fields. Even at this institution, however, I couldn’t help feeling that some professors often seemed quite willing to ignore the need for a more applied approach to teaching, tacitly implying that an efficient division of labor within the policy-making ecosystem would translate our clever and thoughtful words into action.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers. Even when professors were practitioners themselves, their in-class behaviors often failed to reflect that fact. It seems more likely than not that this approach is not just borne out of convenience, but a culture rooted in academic tradition. Though universities like to talk big about their cutting-edge research, often their approaches to pedagogy seem remarkably risk-averse. Academic culture is very slow to change, and the incentives for taking such a large departure are just not there. This culture shift will likely need to occur from the bottom-up, as students demand to be more involved in the activation of research—meaning that any education should be as much about writing words as it is about resourcing those words in clever intentional ways that help, rather than hope, words to translate to actions and actions translate to impact.

How to ‘Activate’ Research: A Brief Case Study

During my time at the Beeck Center, I noticed that the leadership was placing a lot of emphasis on activities other than research, such as convenings, workshops, interviews, or meetings. One of my projects was to design a framework and resource repository for establishing responsible data-sharing practices for social impact. Many third-party organizations have emerged to help facilitate data-sharing for social impact but the resources for sharers and the bandwidth of these facilitators are limited. From the start, it was clear this research was just a launching point and not the end product. We were also going to build a community around this research product that would help activate it and keep it alive, constantly open to change as new best practices and case studies emerge. To me, this approach — one that is both highly collaborative and constantly seeking input — is exactly the way we should be approaching public problems.

One of the most often given pieces of advice is that people should spend 99% of their time understanding the problem and that, if working this way, finding a solution should be so obvious that it takes just the remaining 1% to solve. If that is true, we need to be extra sure that we are solving the right problem or else our deployed solution might not be all that useful. The cleverness of keeping the Beeck Center’s data-sharing guidebook ‘alive’ was that it made the guidebook both a solution and a problem exploration process at the same time. Certainly, it aimed to create a solution to a problem but its openness serves as a way to constantly re-evaluate this solution. That malleability and that openness to collaborate is what will activate the research in the guidebook.

This is a smart approach to making sure that research is activated, but it might not go far enough. With the resources and bandwidth of stakeholders being limited, there are clearly gaps in capacity that limit the scalability of this project. While being careful of the hubris of applying a ‘there’s an app for that’ mentality to complex social problems, I proposed a solution that can help activate the guidebook and resource guide. This solution was borne out of a seemingly impossible trade-off between brevity and usefulness. A shorter guidebook would have recommendations that are more digestible but would have to be more generic, and by extension, not useful beyond a surface level. 

My answer, which is an answer I urge researchers facing problems of activation to consider, is a customizable tool (a ‘wizard’, if you remember Windows ’98) that creates unique guidebooks and resource-repositories for each ‘bin’ of users, reflecting the variety of resources, motivations, and barriers or different stakeholders. When it comes to translating research into action, this approach would significantly help constrained organizations that may not have the resources to discover new approaches wade through the literature and see how it might apply to them.

Advice for Policy Students and Researchers

Seen in the most generous of lights, writing academic papers and memos is training for conducting professional research in the real world. I fear, however, that many students will trip on these bad habits as they enter the professional research world—and that those worlds are comprised of ex-students with similar tendencies. With so many vital issues facing the social sector, we need to be sure that our research efforts build out our ability to generate actionable recommendations and tangible impact. A relevant internship or part-time job while in school could be one possible step forward here, but many students complain that their time is spent on passive class assignments and papers that remain all too often unread and unused. Opportunities that give students a real taste of what it is like to see research applied are lacking — and this is a role that academia needs to fill. In my opinion, applied graduate programs should be thoroughly experiential, matching students with real clients in real teams to solve real problems. Across the country, universities are experimenting with this model, but this new approach is a heavy lift and would require a major revamping of the tenure model — an unlikely proposition in many settings.

Unlike coursework, research doesn’t end when a paper is handed to a superior. If you believe that, by handing someone a memo, you have just handed that person everything they need to know for them to get the job done, you are likely mistaken. You dove deep and you need to be intimately involved in applying that research. The term policy maker is a catch-all term and its vagueness makes it rather difficult to understand when the research stops and the policy creation begins. I urge policy students to reject the suspicions borne out of the structure of their academic program that see a clear demarcation between these two fields. Only when we are deeply involved in a project from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ can we effectively suggest action that is researchable and create research that is actionable.

Don’t let your great ideas gather dust in the cloud; have them gather stardust.

 

Robert Roussel was a student analyst at the Beeck Center in Summer 2019. He is a 2019 graduate of the Georgetown University McCourt School for Public Policy and is currently working at Accenture Federal Services as a tech analyst.

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