Bridging the engagement gap

A relatively old paper, but makes for good and easy reading: Gibbons et al. (2008; Ecological Management & Restoration 9: 182). A figure lists the different motivations of researchers and policy-makers when it comes to collaborating on projects, lightly adapted below.

Researchers are motivated when the projects:

  1. generate information that they can publish
  2. generate resources for longer-term research, e.g., postgrad scholarships or newer funding
  3. have spin-offs for their teaching or training of graduate students
  4. raise their profile in the media
  5. have demonstrable impacts on public policy, e.g., they are formally acknowledged in a policy document
  6. seek objective knowledge rather than support for an existing position

On the other side, policy-makers are motivate by projects that:

  1. are relevant for a contemporary issue
  2. are acceptable to the current government
  3. identify practical solutions
  4. can be used to identify policy options
  5. is demonstrated to work
  6. does not attract controversy
  7. are effectively and succinctly communicable

It ties in with my own experience working on several government-funded projects.

If government agencies want to motivate researchers, they must allow (or even encourage) them to publish and present the work. This also means that the vetting process for publishing and publicising the work, while understandably necessary, cannot be overly onerous. Also, I have found it disappointing when agencies appear to have used our outputs or recommendations without giving credit or acknowledgement. Finally, yes, we are rather wary when it seems like the agency already has a desired outcome in mind, which usually portends conflict as results may just as easily turn out opposite from what is expected.

At the same time, it is clear that the research must address a particular applied problem of interest to policy-makers and/or management. We also often heard the desire for outcomes to be “immediately operational”. Complex solutions, or those that are not popular or politically palatable, usually end up being ignored. And from reading the article, I realize one reason why agencies often reacted negatively to our recommendations: they like to be presented with options going forward, and not be just told what to do, or worse, that they were wrong in something.

I guess we have to work harder, from both ends. Some more excerpts:

Hamel and Prahalad (1989) noted that many scientists appear to operate under a ‘strategy of hope’, that is, simply hoping that their work will engage management professionals but doing nothing to further that goal… Roux et al. (2006) noted that researchers can be guilty of providing a ‘solution’ with the expectation that it will be embraced and then ‘move on to another project bemoaning the fact that their work was not put into practice.’

How true.

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