(notes from a presentation to a JSGS Research Student Working Group session – Monday March 13 2017)
It would seem natural that research in a school of public policy would have policy relevance. That aligns with the mission of the policy sciences as sketched by Harold Lasswell in 1951, building on John Dewey from a quarter century earlier when he described the policy as being oriented towards “the public and its problems”.
It’s likely we’re not doing basic research – we’re starting with an interesting public problem and working towards a public solution
- Describe the public problem you are interested in
- Now what is the public solution you are working towards?
- You have just described the policy implications of your research
When I was struggling with my dissertation, I came across a remarkable essay by Henry Mintzberg, the dean of management studies at McGill University, called Developing Theory about the Development of Theory. Among the many gems in this fun little essay, Mintzberg talks about the problem orientation in all research:
- “First, I start with an interesting question, not a fancy hypothesis. Hypotheses close me down; questions open me up. I have started with, for example: What do managers do?… In my experience, the problem in doctoral theses, and subsequent research people do, is not that they bite off more than they can chew, but that they nibble less than they should consume.”
As I said, I take as assumed that your research is policy relevant. I would suspect that most research conducted by graduate students can be found to have policy relevance.
But what can you do to increase the policy impact of your research? While it may be relevant to public policy problems, what can you do to improve the possibility that some positive, real-world, impact may result from all your hard work?
My central message is that I can guarantee one thing: no one is going to call you up, or send you an email asking to see your thesis. No one with any decision-making authority is going to go to the library to check out your dissertation, read it and say aloud “my god, this is brilliant!!” If you choose to say “my words speak for themselves”, or “everything I had to say is in the thesis”, please be prepared for obscurity. Please know that no one, outside of your committee (and even then), and beyond your family (and probably not) will know about the brilliant work you did.
For those who know me or have taken a course with me, you’ll know that I focus a lot on social media as a new medium for the circulation of ideas.
In many of my courses, having a Twitter account and a public blog are course requirements. There are a few reasons why I do this, but the primary one is: if you are doing work that has some policy relevance, why should you and I (as the instructor) be the only ones who see it? If you are going to review a book, or write a briefing note, propose a policy response, or develop a governance solution – why not publish it to the world? Granted, only three other people may see it (this is part of a longer story about the economics of attention), but that’s three more people than would see it if you emailed an assignment to me and I sent it back to you.
So the first step in having policy impact from your research is telling the world about it. Create a blog if you don’t already have one, and post the things you’re doing. Also get on Twitter as a way of promoting your work and building a community of people interested in your work. Got your proposal accepted? Post a 300 word entry describing the proposal in plain language. Tweet about it a few times and tag a relevant Standing Committee of the Legislature or Parliament using their Twitter handle. If you see a relevant tweet, re-tweet it and casually mention your blog post that highlights your proposal.
As you make significant discoveries, pass milestones, or just read an article that you’re really excited about, Tweet about it or write a short blog post. You’ll find that you’ll start to build a following that will be looking forward to your thesis, who are waiting to see the results of your research. These are the people that be instrumental in getting your work noticed.
And when you’ve defended your thesis or dissertation, use your blog and Twitter to tell the world about it. Use a current event or news story to show how relevant your work is to real world situations. Tag important people who might be able to do something about it (Hey @PremierBradWall – I may have found a way for Saskatchewan to fix the deficit and the climate #winwin http://mythesis.wordpress.com). Again, not a huge number of people will notice, but it will be more than the number of people who will notice if you stick to the standard route and have it shelved in the library.
(And while were talking about the official version of your thesis – what’s with the “© copyright – all rights reserved” stamp on every dissertation and thesis. It’s one thing to be proud of your work, but this seems to be an invitation to people not to use your thesis for any further purpose. It is possible to share your thesis widely without loosing your control over how it’s used. Consider assigning a Creative Commons licence to your final thesis. The university may have a little freak-out, but it’s time they got used to it.)
How about traditional media? Newspapers love free content, but it does take some work to get an op-ed piece in the paper. Nonetheless, you can have a disproportionate impact on policy debates through a well-timed op-ed. See a piece I wrote with Daniel Béland on presumed consent for organ donation. Following on the Standing Committee’s recommendation against presumed consent, and the Premier’s musings that nudge theory might be used to increase organ donation, we wrote an op-ed piece that ultimately agreed with the Committee (to our surprise). This caused the Premier to back off his initial position and the Committee’s view still appears dominant. For guidance on how to write a good op-ed, check out http://www.theopedproject.org/
Social media and traditional media casts a very wide net, but it’s a net that has huge gaps in it. How can you more precisely target your research?
Proactively determine who is or might be interested in your research. Are there MLAs or MPs who have spoken about your issue in parliament? Are there journalists who have covered a similar story, or columnists who write about similar ideas? Find a way to get your work in front of them. Email is the most straightforward way. Send them the executive summary or the link to the blog post. If they want the full thesis, they’ll ask for it. Enlist champions and sympathetic parties throughout the research process. Are there advocacy groups who will be interested in your research? Let them know as you’re doing your research so they are looking forward to it when you’re done.
Be a teacher, even if you aren’t a teacher. One of the jokes about graduate study is that the defence involves the act of defending something you have come to loath. But I’ve found that even if that’s the case, it’s the stuff around the thesis that’s interesting. Find opportunities to tell people about the ideas you’re excited about and what you found through your research. Are there community groups who will be interested? Let them know about the work you’ve done and that you’d be happy to come and talk to them. Most groups are very happy to have outsiders come and speak to them. Parent/teacher night at most schools are always happy to have a researcher come and talk about their work if it’s relevant to the context.
Academic policy analysis has been cynically called “a solution in search of a problem.” But I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes our ideas are ahead of their time, and we must wait for windows of opportunity to open. I am currently doing research in what I call “strategically inventing the digital future”. The solution I’m proposing – that societies should more thoughtfully and with a strategic vision, choose which new technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and augmented humanity are embraced in order to create the future we want rather than fix the future we get – presupposes a future state or problem that has not emerged yet. Nonetheless it is still centrally focused on a public problem with policy implications. So your research may be ahead of its time; but that’s a good thing because you’ll be ready when that problem does emerge.
We should be aware of what kind of impact our research might have. If you are expecting that your elegantly crafted policy solution will directly translate into a cabinet submission that immediately becomes policy, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Actually, the more you suggest that you have the answer and it must be adopted as you described it, the less likely that anyone in a position of authority will listen to you. If you can somehow convince a Minister that your idea is actually their brilliant idea, they are more likely to run with it. Also remember the central lesson of rhetoric: that for someone to hear your message, the message must fit with their capacity to hear. Understand the perspective of the audience and tailor your message to their perspective.
Ao I think a more reasonable objective is that your work gets used to further support an already developing idea, or becomes one of the building blocks in a larger project. At a minimum, you can hope that your research serves an enlightenment function (as Carole Weiss called it in the 1970s), and in some imperceptible but important way changes the mental model of the person who reads it. As Mintzberg said “I admire researchers who try to build cathedrals, not lay a few bricks.”