Glasses on a book

Five Reasons Why Researchers Make Great Advocates

It might be helpful to to explain why a post like this is even necessary. Aren’t good researchers (i.e., scientists) supposed to separate their work from advocacy interests? I’m going to focus on social science here, since I’m more familiar with it, but mostly because a very wide range of social policies intersect with topics studied by social scientists.

In her book, “Advocacy and Objectivity: A Crisis in the Professionalization of American Social Science, 1865-1905” Mary O. Furner points out that in the dawn of social science in America, researchers fully embraced the interconnectedness of fact-finding and policymaking. As Davydd Greenwood quotes in his excellent review of the book:

[American Social Science Association (ASSA)] members recognized no opposition between knowledge and reform. Such a concern was unthinkable: the two were inseparable. In this view, the problem-oriented, empirical, fact-gathering, atheoretical ASSA approach set its inquirers up as reporters to a wide audience concerned with policy questions” (loc. 215).

As the field of social science research professionalized within the academic sector, its leaders deliberately sought to separate their work from “reform” in order to, ironically enough, have greater sway in public policy debates. I’d make the case that the same held true during this period or shortly thereafter for the field of journalism.

In any event, it’s obvious this movement eventually betrayed its origins, such that many people believe researchers and journalists must somehow pursue factual evidence while surrendering their interests, stakes, and voices in advocating on the issues they study. This view reflects a misunderstanding of the research process, and of the professional attributes most important to it: namely, the eager willingness to transparently reject hypotheses in the face of evidence.

That said, here are five reasons why researchers can be top-notch, highly effective advocates for social policy change.

  1. We are persuasive. We work from a set of facts and best-available evidence. Just as importantly, we know how to document our thinking. Values matter, feelings matter, culture shapes reality; all of this is true, but people still privilege facts in how they think and act. Feelings and prior beliefs shape how we think about new facts, but the factual evidence itself does a lot of the heavy lifting. Researchers are good about relentlessly committing the discussion to the facts, which can ultimately be a highly persuasive approach.
  2. We are trustworthy. We are not only willing to, but in fact actively seek to adjust our beliefs and recommendations based on new evidence. And, we’re not afraid to be forthcoming about contradictory evidence. Some advocates see this as a weakness, but not in my experience. Much of legislative policy advocacy is about developing trusting relationships with policymakers and policy influencers. Legislators and their staff members look for experts to help understand an issue and address it effectively. For this, they rely on trustworthy relationships. Good researchers provide more than just evidential ammunition; they shape policy trajectories in profound, long-term ways.
  3. We are good listeners. The expression, “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is inherent to research, because we seek first to understand. Again this may seem counter-intuitive to those less familiar with legislative advocacy, but a critical skill for effective advocates is understanding partners, and opposing views, at a deep and authentic level. Doing so makes you a better coalition partner, helps you navigate around and through policy change barriers, and helps you think creatively in finding the kind of common ground necessary for legislative action. It takes no talent to be dismissive, nor is it particularly useful advocacy skill.
  4. We know how to speak truth to power. It’s easy to see how lawyers embrace adversarial processes in their work, but researchers do, too. You often need a certain level of topical or methodological sophistication to see it, but there is plenty of shade thrown even in academic journal articles. The power dynamics within universities can be noxious sometimes, of course, but compared to other sectors, academic researchers have great latitude and incentive to take established authority figures and knowledge paradigms to task. Intellectual fearlessness is part of the soul of the research profession.
  5. We see through BS. Researchers are trained to cut right through it, but with evidence over ideology. Effective advocates know that when truth is on their side, eventually they will win. While ideology can keep us from looking in the right places for truth, it’s also important to recognize that political ideologies are dynamic forces that shape and adjust over time in response to a variety of factors, including new truths. We don’t have to reject political ideology to pursue truth, but we do have to be willing to advocate for ideological change in response to it.

These five points represent, of course, the positives. Just as there are many reasons why researchers can be great advocates, there are plenty of reasons why they can be lousy advocates. Below are five to consider, though I’m not going to expound on them in this article.

  1. Some of us have inadequate interpersonal skills to be effective advocates.
  2. Some of us struggle to distinguish what is intrinsically right and good, from what can be known through scientific method.
  3. Some of us have a political tin ear.
  4. Some of us lack the skills to communicate effectively with non-researcher audiences.
  5. Some of us fail to appreciate how scientific evidence and cultural values intersect in nuanced, complex ways that can and should be prioritized within democratic policymaking.

Happy researching, and happy advocating! You can indeed do both.