If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Recently, I’ve come across a blog posting discussing an expectation falling on academics in regards to policy change. James Lloyd argues that we need to reconsider the belief that academics should be expected to change policy. Doing so, it seems, would be a lost cause; policy work is too time consuming, too dependent on relationships and political considerations, already supports the status quo, and academics are not well placed to provide such advice. While these may very well be barriers to success, they shouldn’t limit the reach of academic research. Academics are not policymakers, and policymakers are not academics, but these worlds can and should collide, as I think Lloyd is suggesting. Just because academics shouldn’t be designing policy change, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be encouraged to influence it. Seeking to influence implies having some effect, in this case a desire to either change or further substantiate policy or practice. Indeed, there is an entire movement (dare I say expectation) towards evidence-based policy as the quintessential form of policy making. Given this, shouldn’t academic research form a significant part of this?

As such, I argue we should absolutely expect academic research to influence and change policy and practice. In fact, more academics and institutions would do well to align with this aim. I am not suggesting that hiring and firing should be made on the basis of some quantitative measure of change. Instead, mobilizing academic research towards policy change should be built into the culture of the institution. Currently, the most innovative professors engage regularly with the ‘outside world’, but universities ought to create an environment where this is the norm. If you buy into this notion, then the more important question to consider is how we can help academics to transform their research into effective practice.

Dr. Evan Fraser, a Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph is a model example of academic research adapted for effective knowledge mobilization. He has translated his work into a website, a graphic novel, a number of YouTube videos, and even a six-week lesson plan for Ontario high-schools in accordance with curriculum standards. Of course, not all research needs to go to this extent, and certainly not all of the material he has created will form a tool for policy change.

Smaller ventures like creating plain language documents, utilizing social media or creating infographics are also useful. The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI), also based out of the University of Guelph is a knowledge mobilization organization dedicated to creating university-community partnerships. CESI, amongst assisting with the creation of knowledge translation tools like the ones suggested above, exists for the very purpose of increasing the relationship between academic research and ‘real-world’ impact. Greater use, and an increased presence of organizations like CESI on university campuses is a necessary step in helping academics influence and achieve policy change and creating a culture of knowledge mobilization.

Of course, this discussion speaks to a larger question on the value of academic research, namely, what role it should be playing in society. I have assumed here that the primary purpose of academia and institutions of higher education in general is to create material relevant for understanding and improving the world around us. Which brings me to the title of this post; if academic research is produced in the ivory tower, but nobody sees it, should we consider it meaningful research?


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