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The Hewlett Foundation Blog

Friday Note: The Policy-Relevant Research Pickle 

May 16, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

Social science researchers in U.S. universities who are working on topics in global development and want to see their work applied are in a pickle. Here are just a few of the many reasons why: It’s hard to do fancy empirical work when the underlying data are of suspect quality. If scholars describe their work in ways non-specialists can understand, which is essential for sharing knowledge with those who can use it, peers may be unimpressed and question the researchers' rigor. If academics take time to learn about real-world policy and program implementation challenges—particularly the time needed for serious field work in another country—that’s time they’re not spending honing their methodologies and writing new papers, the sine qua non of a successful academic career. Researchers may also discover that those real-world challenges are better addressed by basic analytic exercises and intelligent perseverance than by anything fancy (or publishable).

Social scientists who just want to hunker down and do their research, regardless of the real-world utility in the near term, are also in a pickle. In addition to the dreaded accusation of doing “research for its own sake,” they may find that funders are increasingly pushing for more applied, or at least more applicable, work, as well as for collaborations with in-country partners. At a minimum this complicates the task of raising money, and either leads to more creative storytelling about relevance and teamwork, or diverts scholars away from doing the Big Think they’re trained to do.

And many funders, like those of us in the Global Development and Population Program, are also in a pickle. We respect the conceptual and empirical rigor that academics bring. We understand that the breadth and depth of research expertise in the U.S. is without parallel. We know research is a process of accumulated knowledge over many years. And we know the importance of creating opportunities for the next generation of researchers. But we’re charged with making the world a better place—expanding choices for women, particularly those in the poorest places, and amplifying the voices of citizens. Our research grants are motivated by the potential that the findings will be useful, not in an abstract way but in a sooner-rather-than-later sort of way. In the end, it’s disappointing when the research question ends up being detached from real-world problems, when those who know the context best are excluded, when progress on a research project is jeopardized by in-house politics, when findings are communicated in ways that few can understand, or when a study is delayed, sometimes by years. (Truthfully, sometimes just the routine progress reports from universities are delayed by years!)

So we’re in a situation in which some researchers who do great applied work are unlikely to advance in their careers, others have trouble getting support for their more theoretical contributions, and funders are often perplexed about when and how to work with academics. For our part, as I look at our portfolio, I think we’ve patched together a few fixes: First, we often fund research within think tanks, which are staffed with strong researchers who have chosen a different, more policy-oriented path. Second, we support university-based researchers who, because of affiliations outside of their home institution and their own individual drive, have achieved significant policy traction in their work and have an appetite for more. Third, we have at times departed from an “outcome focus” in the traditional sense and sought to build or strengthen a field, such as economic demography within the Population and Poverty Initiative. Field-building demands more in the way of theoretical and methodological advances, and less in terms of findings that can be applied. In other words, it suits academics. This is what we’ve come to more through trial-and-error than grand theory.

We currently are thinking through how to advance policy making that is well informed by both theory and empirical evidence. That’s a far-reaching agenda, but in the process I’m hoping we will develop a coherent view about the role —if any —universities can realistically play in generating and communicating policy relevant research. I’m guessing others have thought long and hard about this, and I’d welcome your comments on this post.