While scanning Twitter this morning I came across a post from Duncan Greene that caught my eye:
The blogpost he was linking to raises some excellent questions about the benefits of closer relations between academics and practitioners in the development space, and how to increase the overlapping parts of the academic/practice Venn Diagram. It resonated with me because if I hadn’t had a close relationship with institutions like the World Bank, TechChange Inc, UNDP, the U.S. Institute of Peace and many smaller NGOs during my PhD studies, I wouldn’t have been able to develop my dissertation topic, gather my dissertation data, or have a policy audience that would find my dissertation results useful. Greene proposes some good points about how to create these linkages that I completely agree with, and as an academic that has spent time as a practitioner in INGOs and IOs I felt motivated to chime in.
So why is it so hard to get academics to work with international organizations, NGOs and policy bodies? Greene’s post makes two major points about larger mandates (knowledge for the sake of knowledge versus knowledge to make evidence-based decisions) and time scale (academic research isn’t responsive to what’s happening in real time) that I think will forever dog the ability for practitioners and academics to work together. While there are more academic departments that are recognizing the value of research that feeds into policy development, for the most part academics receive little to no benefit (and indeed sometimes incur a negative cost) for engaging with government/international agencies and INGOs. This doesn’t mean there’s no space to collaborate, but it’s an issue that I think will always be there.
This gets at a major point that is critical for folks at INGOs and IOs to recognize. Academia is quite stringent about what counts toward advancement. With some rare exceptions, there’s little if any institutional reward for working on policy issues. Even if a department is supportive of it, tenure and rank decisions are made at the university level, so any policy work has to be on top of the expected publications and research funding that count in the eyes of the wider university. I’d argue the way to work around this as an INGO is to focus on relationships with PhD students and senior faculty. PhD students benefit from being ‘out there’ and having their research be seen more broadly – it’s been a huge help in my academic experience to have a wide range of contacts in INGOs and IOs who know my work. For senior (tenured) faculty the advantage is building relationships that can be useful to their students (many of whom won’t go into academia, but would love to work at Oxfam!), as well as having access to things like public service sabbaticals which makes it easier for them to take time off the research production line.
Indeed, Greene mentions having a PhD student who was doing his topic in coordination with with an Oxfam thematic policy. This is a fantastic way to bring academia and practice closer together, and it’s what I did a lot of during my PhD. It was great: I got the occasional nice consultant’s payday, got interesting feedback from non-academics, helped with policy issues, and still did work that is academically relevant. The main issue I found though was that this was not systematic at all – every INGO, IO, or agency I worked with was based on specific personal relationships. As long as the colleague was in that agency, I had a good relationship with that agency. When they left, the relationship with the agency ended (or more accurately, followed that colleague to their new agency). There are some good systemic efforts in the U.S. Government to bring academics into the policy fold, such as the AAAS fellowships which place social and natural science PhDs in government agencies for 1-2 years. To bring academics and policy people closer, there need to be more of these kind of system-level programs in place that cover the costs of having researchers working in organizations that are funded primarily to respond to current events.
It’s not impossible to work with junior faculty, but this is where understanding the idiosyncrasies of academia is crucial. One example is the idea of 50/50 action/research funding; it’s a good idea, but it’s hard to pull off in a way that mutually benefits the academic party. If an academic puts in many hours drafting a proposal and the only money they see is through a consulting arrangement, then it doesn’t count as grant money for them departmentally. If the research that then comes out of that money isn’t peer-review grade then they’ve potentially spent months of time working on a proposal and project that won’t move them toward tenure or their next academic rank. Most academic departments won’t count consulting work, even if it’s in-field, toward a junior faculty member’s tenure file. The way to solve this is for the INGO and an academic department to be co-applicants, so that the research side of the funding goes straight to the academic department with the academic’s name on it as a principal investigator. This allows the academic, at the very least, to count it on their CV as research money that was brought into the university even if the research outputs never see peer review.
The discussion about how to find new, better ways to bring academia and practice into a mutually beneficial relationship is important – a lot of public money goes into research, and the results should have public as well as theoretical value. While many departments are recognizing the importance of professors being involved in real-world work, it’s also important that INGOs and NGOs recognize that academia places very specific, often idiosyncratic, demands on researchers. By understanding those demands and working with academics to shape projects that meet those demands, I think there will be many more opportunities for academia and the practice community to create an increasingly overlapped venn diagram.