Getting Research to People Who Can Use It
Linda Silka, PhD, Senior Fellow, Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, University of Maine
When you pick up your local paper, listen to the national news, or hear policy debates, it can be gratifying to see how often the issues relate directly to the themes of research being done by SPSSI members. Our findings speak to important policy issues. Many graduate students who join SPSSI comment that they do so because they don’t want to just do research for research’s sake. They want their research to make a difference. We all do.
But there’s a problem. We write erudite articles that get published in leading peer-reviewed journals. We share our work with other researchers at conferences. But the research, outstanding as it is, is not making the difference it could and should. The research often isn’t being brought into policy discussions. Why? Most of us in graduate school were not trained to write in ways that reach the many people who want to use our research. In our academic writing we take forever to get to the point. We often begin our presentation with a detailed summary of the literature. We finally get around to explaining what the research has found. But we always end with the point that not enough is known and more research is needed. What is someone to do who wants to use the research?
At last year’s SPSSI conference we decided to confront the gaps in our training directly. SPSSI’s Social Policy Committee brought on the Scholar Strategy Network (SSN) to offer a preconference workshop on how we in SPSSI can increase the uptake of our research through new forms of writing. SSN is known for its work starting chapters at universities around the country where researchers learn to write in ways that reach policy makers, political leaders, and the public. The intent is to get research into local press and other outlets. more that 30 SPSSI members participated: students and faculty.
The SSN trainers shared examples of common mistakes (ones nearly all of us found ourselves recognizing that we had committed). Then the SSN trainers gave us great ideas about how to reach people through writing about our research in ways that have policy implications and the trainers gave us time to practice how we can begin to do a better job.
And was the training helpful? Judge for yourself. Already two very exciting pieces have been published by attendees. Beth Shinn and Gerald Higginbotham both placed op-eds inspired by work they started at the SPSSI conference.
All of this would not have been possible without the skilled and dedicated professionals on the SPSSI staff. Sarah Mancoll, head of policy for SPSSI, is doing much that is making a difference: she is recruiting and training us to present at congressional hearings and policy events. And Cyndi Lucas, the SPSSI publicity leader, is doing a great job getting the word out through our newsletter and other outlets. We are most fortunate to be able to tap this talent to help strengthen the impact of SPSSI’s policy research.