avatar image for Julie Cook
Julie Cook Kitchener August 16, 2021
Hi everyone,

Those of you who work in academia or activism may be interested to read this Behavioral Scientist article about the space where behavioural/social science research and advocacy intersect.

The article raises questions such as:

To what extent should scientists engage in advocacy or activism on social and political issues? Should they be impartial investigators, active advocates, or something in between?

A number of North American academics weighed in, with some fascinating arguments for and against blurring the lines between science and advocacy.

Here are three opinion pieces, to give you a sample:

------

"Scientists can be advocates in the policy arena, but they will have a greater impact on public policy if they are not. In fact, we need more scientists to take a stand for a non-advocacy approach in the policy arena. The reputation of science (and scientists) will improve and we’ll ultimately get better public policies...elected officials will first look for a researcher’s underlying biases. They will look at who funded your research, whether you have written op-eds naming and shaming individuals or groups, whether you appear to have an agenda, and what you post on social media. Researchers are often unaware of how easily they slip into advocate mode and how much care must be taken to appear unbiased and objective. Yet being known as an honest broker and a non-advocate is essential for long-term success in the policy world. The most successful researchers—those trusted on both sides of the aisle—present the literature fairly and dispassionately and lay out the consequences of various policy options. They then stop and listen."

Heidi Normandin is the director of legislative outreach at the University of Wisconsin–Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs.

------

..."Ultimately I think science and advocacy need each other in order to be as effective as possible. Why? Most scientists do not want to conduct science for the sake of science alone. They want their findings to be used to improve lives. Advocates often are the drivers of change. Advocates want the world to be materially better for people, so they generally want to advocate for what is proven to work. More collaboration between scientists and advocates could be a powerful force for good."

Josh Wright is the executive director of ideas42.

------

"While a researcher may not choose to engage in overt advocacy or activism, we should realize that all research is inherently political. Choices are made about what research to fund and conduct, who has input into the decisions and process, and who can access the results...I believe that denying the political nature of research, particularly by those doing it, is to live a life willfully unexamined in a way that we would not accept when conducting research. We should all be questioning our motives, our assumptions, our values and how our research fits with who we believe we are and who is and should be benefiting from our work."

Jean McKendree is a cognitive scientist who has worked in psychology departments, research centres, and medical schools in applied education research. 

-------

The article is quite lengthy, so if you lack the time, consider choosing one or two sub-sections that interest you the most. Here's the full article again for your convenience.