Thursday, 13 December 2012

How researchers can learn to stop worrying and love communicators

By Nicholas Benequista

Let’s be frank. Researchers don’t really like us research communicators.

They have good reason not to like us, but this doesn’t necessarily need to be so. To explain why, however, I have to go back thirty years or so.

The Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability ( taught us a lot about how researchers connect with political and social actors in distinct ways. Understanding of how individual researchers and their institutions view themselves as agents of change is a good way to begin thinking about a communication strategy, rather than the other way around.  Image credit: N.Benequista
When it was finally acknowledged that policy-makers mostly ignore research, Nathan Caplan postulated the "two communities theory" to explain this shocking phenomenon. He said that there was a "culture gap" between researchers and policy-makers demarcated by their different values, language, professional practices and institutional contexts.

In a sense, those of us who work in research communication are supposed to be the bridges between these two communities, but if you look critically at the literature on research communication, you’ll see that we’ve recreated that culture gap.

On the one side, various academic disciplines - including communication studies, political science and cultural theory - continue to examine research communication for insights into the relationship between knowledge and social change.

This body of mid-range theory, however, has often ignored the politics of the research field, including the increasing pressure imposed on "applied" areas such as development studies or health to deliver "influence." Consequently, these theories are blind to how research communication transforms researchers personally and to how the mainstreaming of research communication is actually a political force. Researchers resent political communicators because we represent an effort change the way they work, and we have to be willing to accept that we have sometimes (though not always) done so for the worse.

On the other side of this divide are the practice-minded guidebooks and handbooks for research communication. These certainly draw on the theory. Some guidebook authors are simultaneously publishing on the topic of research communication in peer-reviewed journals. The majority of them, however, are penned by the agencies - such as the UK Department for International Development or US Agency for International Development - who are mandating that the research they fund shows results. They tend to be bureaucratic and procedural, with long checklists and only the most cursory mention of theory. In my experience, when these “lessons” are delivered to researchers in this format, they are often met with either complete disinterest or with bristling contempt.

And here’s the irony. They are meant to close the culture gap, but they recreate it, because they make no attempt to understand researchers.

The biggest practical challenge of good research communication is a political challenge
Policy network maps and policy briefs are indeed useful skills that need to be learned, but the biggest practical challenge of good research communication is a political challenge of connecting researchers with other actors. The "two communities" theory was later dismissed as it was revealed that many researchers actually inhabit both communities quite well. Indeed, we (Joanna Wheeler and I) would add that researchers occupy an array of different communities - sometimes including high-level policy-makers and other times including local activist groups. But there are, nonetheless, still serious challenges to getting researchers to embrace research communication. This first challenge owes to the very diversity just mentioned. Many are not connected to high-level policy-makers, though perhaps highly influential in other ways: as teachers or as intellectual advisors for social movements. The current best practice for research communication almost completely ignores this diversity.

The second challenge is perhaps even more serious and brings us to the main point, which is the need to approach research communication as part and parcel of the research process. You might call it praxis, or you might just call it integration. Researchers may already be deeply involved in actions to promote political or social change on their own accord, but research communication asks them to do so within the constraints of their professional field. Deep social theory is necessary for understanding the important theoretical questions about knowledge and change raised by research communication, but the practice of research communication poses new professional demands on researchers that must be reconciled with methodological practices and the politics of research.

In other words, research communication isn’t really different from research. This is especially important in development, since it is not the 'ivory tower' that other academic disciplines would aspire to be. This is partly what we’re trying to work towards in our contribution to the IDS Bulletin on New Roles for Research Communication?

So researchers, please stop worrying about the oversimplifications of the policy briefing, and let’s instead think about how we can finally bridge that culture gap.

Nicholas Benequista co-authored the IDS Bulletin article Cartographers, Conciliators and Catalysts: Understanding the Communicative Roles of Researchers with Joanna Wheeler. He is currently carrying out an action research project in Kenya to test the possibilities offered by new communication technologies for journalists. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter at @benequista.

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development?