“What’s in it for me?”: Putting Research to Practical Use

In mid-June the Stanford Social Innovation Review blogged the results of a survey they conducted. The survey’s purpose: to understand the role of academic research in the work of practitioners in a broad range of social, environmental and economic issue areas. Many of the 1,800 respondents described academic research as difficult to access, expensive, too narrow, and not relevant. Seventy percent cited the “difficulty of translating research findings into concrete action” as one of the reasons for a substantial gap between the two worlds.

The results of the survey brought to my mind strong words from former Freedom from Hunger CEO Chris Dunford about the usefulness and applicability of one specific type of academic research, randomized control trials:

Practitioners committed to learning … have questions that are not the same as the researchers are interested in, and the researchers are in control. Even for questions of interest to the practitioner, the RCT-generated answers are seldom useful to the practitioners because the RCT approach is not well suited to revealing why things are the way they are.

The challenge of bridging research and practice, while a long-standing and difficult one, is also our opportunity. At FAI, we work to synthesize published evidence, consider its implications, frame it, and communicate it to the world.

Before coming to work at FAI Headquarters in New York, I spent 18 months collecting data in the field for the U.S. Financial Diaries project. At our research sites throughout the U.S. we spent a lot of time explaining the study to direct service organizations, businesses, schools, and households that rarely see a connection between academia and their daily lives.

“What's in it for me?” asked nearly every community partner and potential participant we approached. In the moment, other field researchers and I would sometimes hesitate to respond. What is in it for them? At non-profits we appealed to social-justice missions, explaining that “You’ll learn insights about programs and products that can best serve your community.” To households that we hoped would participate we offered vague promises like “You'll have a chance to share your story” and “You'll help to make things better for your kids.” 

For over a year we became part of the lives of the families whom we interviewed. We left the field with an up-close understanding of their financial struggles and with a new network of partners and even friends, two factors that motivate us to put our data to practical use.

So how does research become practical? As we engage in analysis of Financial Diaries data, I’m also embarking on a project to tackle this meta-question. I will explore topics like the practitioner decision-making process, incentives faced by people in academia versus those on the ground, and the implications of technology advances that allow more communication between the two fields.

Stay tuned as we push forward the conversation of just how research – particularly in the realm of poverty, inequality, and financial access – does, can, and should reflect back onto the real world.