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Identifying research topics that will not only advance science but also improve the broader society (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

How do you generate new research ideas? When Jill Dimond first interviewed women at domestic violence shelters, she was taking an unusual path for a computer science grad student. As she cataloged stories of abuse, she realized women needed a new place to tell their stories, find support and organize for change. So she worked with a nonprofit to create a website to achieve that goal.

Some advisers might have warned Dimond away from work that looked too applied. But as more women told their stories, Dimond’s adviser encouraged her to continue. Using software Dimond created, Hollaback!, a nonprofit that works to end harassment “in all its forms,” organized thousands of people in 50 cities, 18 countries and nine languages to organize against violence against women. Dimond’s dissertation research, which bridged computer science and political science, won computer science awards and advanced theories of technology and social change.

Many researchers share Dimond’s underlying goal. They want their work to impact both science and society. Yet they often aren’t sure where to start when the goal is not only advancing scientific understanding but also creating knowledge that helps solve real-world problems.

Here we suggest one path forward: initiating one or more collaborative conversations with practitioners, community leaders and/or policy makers.

When academics start with the research literature, we tend to ask questions about who says what, using what methods, and what gaps exist. These aspects are essential for advancing scientific understanding. Yet focusing only on them can unintentionally lead us away from thinking about how our work might also address the kinds of problems that motivate people to pursue science in the first place: to cure disease, to eliminate poverty, to reduce polarization, to improve economic mobility and so on.

We suggest asking another question when starting a new project: “With whom should I speak about the problems I care about?” Graduate students can pose it to themselves, and colleagues and advisers can ask it of each other. To be sure, some already pose this question on a regular basis, yet our experience is that doing so is certainly not ubiquitous.

Collaborative conversation can be helpful in three ways. One is by revealing new ideas. For example, political scientists’ idea to study the impact of social pressure on voting came from a conversation with a campaigner in Michigan. That practitioner had noticed that the threat of public exposure from not voting might increase turnout. The resulting research improved our understanding of social pressure as a motivational force, while also greatly influencing get-out-the-vote efforts in races across the country.

Collaborative conversations also reveal limitations in the existing scientific literature. During discussions with a peace-building organization about postgenocide Rwanda, psychologist Linda Tropp, an expert on prejudice reduction, noticed that the intergroup literature typically assumed two groups in conflict, notably victims and perpetrators. Yet her conversations revealed the need to consider a distinct third group in Rwanda: bystanders. That realization ultimately motivated her and co-authors to conduct fascinating new research and on-the-ground interventions to strengthen social cohesion when three groups share a violent past.

Such conversations also keep scientific theory grounded in the kinds of problems that often lead people into graduate school. For instance, when cancer researchers directly interact with breast cancer patient-activist organizations, they are reminded about the importance of both advancing scientific understanding of breast cancer and also of reaching the ultimate goal of eliminating it.

Five Steps for Collaborative Conversations

Here are five steps for generating impactful research ideas that contribute to both science and society.

  1. Think about what real-world problems you directly care about. Determine what they are and why you care about them.
  2. Identify stakeholders who are working to address, or who are affected by, these problems. If you’re unsure, start local, perhaps with local officials, nonprofit directors, advocates, journalists, health professionals, community members and/or educators. In digital environments, local could mean a community you’re connected to, even if it has no geographic center.
  3. Reach out directly with a short, clear ask. This is typically just a meeting or phone call. Adopt a benefit-exchange mind-set, focusing on why the person whom you’ve contacted might benefit from interacting with you and vice versa. In the initial ask, briefly describe the problem you care about, identify shared values, state your desire to learn from the individual and include a sentence or two about your task-related expertise.
  4. Focus on mutual learning and show awareness of the boundaries of your own knowledge to make the conversation collaborative. In addition, plan to follow up, either immediately or once your research is complete.
  5. Know your field. Take what you learn from the conversation and connect it to relevant questions that other scientists are asking. Read examples of use-inspired basic research and decide whether or not it makes sense to formally partner with a practitioner to conduct your work.

Collaborative conversations helped Dimond imagine research that supported women worldwide and advanced knowledge in two fields. By asking “with whom?” when starting new projects, you, too, can take steps toward positively impacting both science and society.

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