Studies in translation

One of my new projects is a bit of a different approach for me, more directly bridging my pseudo-academic pursuits and my applied advocacy practice.

I am working with the Assets in Education Initiative, an effort of the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, to produce some materials and provide some advising, towards their aim of making their academic research ‘resonate’ more in the policy arena.

I have some thoughts, and some questions, as I approach these challenges, but, mainly, I want to start by pointing out what should, perhaps, be obvious:

It is super awesome that they are doing this.

How often do we academics (including the just pseudo-ones, like me) read academic literature–others’ or our own–and think, “this has profound implications for policy”, without, perhaps, giving much thought to the unlikelihood that any real policymakers or influencers will ever see it?

How often do we look at a policy and smack our fists against our foreheads, because OF COURSE it’s not going to work, given what we have learned about XYZ issue in the past 30 years of research. It’s like the state legislators haven’t even SEEN the research on the short tenures of stay on TANF and the importance of higher education as a work activity.

Because they haven’t.

My own students lament the fact that, having been trained to look to peer-reviewed literature for trustworthy information about best practices, connections between social problems and interventions (that can form the backdrop of a theory of change), and credible support for the changes they want to pursue…they then find, post-graduation, that they can’t even afford access to the journals on which we tell them to rely.

So I’m struck by the insight, and the humility, with which my new colleagues at AEDI are approaching this ‘next step’ in their work. They recognize that we have learned enough, in the past two decades, to know that helping low-income households accumulate assets can have significant impact on their behavior and even their thinking. They have been part of demonstrating the potential of these interventions through demonstration projects and numerous rigorous research efforts.

The next step:

Leveraging that base of knowledge, and the passions of those who have seen lives transformed through this asset-based approach to fighting poverty and reducing economic inequality, to win policy changes that can take these ideas to scale.

I hope this is just the first I’ve seen of a trend in academic researchers thinking hard about how to translate their ideas for policymakers, media consumption, and advocate empowerment. And, not just thinking about it, but dedicating resources, within their research budgets, to bridge that gap.

Some of the items we’ll undertake are already spelled out, but I am crowdsourcing this a bit, too, and I’d love to hear from those of you on the advocacy side–what do you wish you had, in order to carry academic studies that you find promising to a policymaker audience? And those who are researchers–where are your greatest challenges, in terms of figuring out ‘hooks’ to make your knowledge accessible by those in the policymaking arena?

Thank you, in advance, for your help in this decoding.

There’s no Rosetta Stone for this kind of translation for policy impact.

2 responses to “Studies in translation

  1. What resonated most from this article was the issue of the lack of accessibility to academic journals since I’ve been out of school. I’ve joked to my husband that I’m going to reapply to the university just to get library priviledges. I’ve spoken with the KU library about offering a special rate to post gradulates to have access to journals, but no luck there.

    So I often feel cut off from the research world. I adore research and would love to be able to contribute and keep up with current policy research but find it’s near impossible. I certainly can’t afford subscriptions to the many academic journals.

    While working with social policy on a grassroots level and with a sw background, many of us would be perfect to read the research and present it to our legislators. I agree sometimes legislators haven’t read the social policy research studies. I understand they are busy with many issues underfoot. Therefore if I could access the information myself, then I could send summaries to legislators.

    Great subject, Melinda! Keep us up to date on future progress.

    • And it’s so senseless, Lesa–with the ease of online content, there should be some ways to monetize the academic journals so that people can get access to them. Why couldn’t people pay something by article, or have an affordable subscription rate? Or why couldn’t the universities have an alumni account? I’m encouraged by how many researchers and think tanks are producing papers and publishing them online, but it’s definitely only the beginning of that trend. Thank you for being another voice on this!

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