29 April 2014.
By Rowena Harding.
What skills does an academic researcher need to have? I’ve never been an academic researcher – unless you count a brief period of behavioural science as an undergraduate many moons ago. But observing the first communications workshop in our Cape Town conference got me thinking: “what is in a researcher’s job description?” and “what skills are essential to be an academic researcher and what are not?”
I was pondering this because one of our research associates began today by running a fast paced 60-minute session on improving writing – of working papers (make every word count, even if they are 7,000 words), blogs (they only take a few hours) and policy briefs (policy makers don’t have time to read methodologies and references). I sensed an uncomfortable shifting in the chairs amongst our researchers. This was a room full of leading names in their field, with a long list of academic published titles, and yet the awkwardness was palpable.
“We can’t write policy briefs!” was one cry. “We need a … a … policy brief writer for that”. “Blogs don’t take afternoons or hours, they can take days, weeks.”
It was clear that asking researchers to do more work on top of comprehensive research activity was taking people out of their comfort zone.
Checking in online during the conference break I noticed Research to Action were at a conference in Nairobi, looking at how researchers could make their research accessible, make a greater impact in the media, and why. It helps bring your research to life, it brings people to your research institute’s website, helps gauge interest in emerging policy issues, gives your research currency and allows you to address misinformation – these were some of the suggestions given as to why researchers should use the media.
Similarly, back in Manchester where the ESID project has its permanent home, our colleagues were running a seminar called Academia 2.0 – on how academics now had to embrace a digital age and fast moving digital channels to get their research disseminated.
The event described itself as relevant because:
“Early career researchers face a very different environment if compared to the one faced by more senior researchers at the early stages of their careers. The new set of issues include challenges with reaching and having an impact on society with academic research, as well as the new and changing ways of communicating research findings to a wider audience.”
This suggests that those new to research need to prove themselves by using accessible communications and embracing new media to ensure that their research is better received, cuts through a crowded market and can be actually used by policy makers and others who can implement it. What’s implicit in this agenda is that “senior researchers” don’t need to have these skills. Is this because senior researchers can trade on their name to open the heavy doors of media and policy makers? Is it because senior researchers don’t need their research to be made accessible and implemented (highly unlikely, if they have interested funders)? Or is it simply because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks… if you’ll pardon the phrase?
Tomorrow I am running a workshop on identifying audiences for research uptake, delivering messaging, using communication opportunities, identifying barriers to communication – I’ll let you know if it turns out that I’m teaching old dogs new tricks. But I’m hoping to tap into their motivations as researchers: is it their desire to end poverty, career pressures for publication, their dogged determination to research till they drop? Whatever their motivation, communications can certainly help them towards realising those motivations, so I hope we’ll find a way to convince them of the benefit of popular communications.