Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reconciling science research and practice

There is a lot of conversation these days around "bridging" research and practice in various fields - as a science and conservation type I tend to pay more attention to that piece, but I also see it in active conversation in the humanities and other fields as well. There are two main threads here that I think are helpful to break apart - one is how to better connect the results of research (and, not often enough, the process of research) with practice. The other related, but somewhat separate, piece is how to better train graduate students for practice-based careers in the sciences.

On the latter topic -- training science graduate students for practice careers -- I come across at least one article a day addressing the pragmatic concerns that the academic job market sucks, and a bunch of us never wanted research careers anyway, so universities should train graduate students for careers outside the university (see just one recent example here). I have written on this topic as well, many a time. And, while in theory I agree with the idea, I really wonder if universities are actually prepared to train practitioners, specifically in graduate programs in the sciences, without a pretty extreme re-imagining of graduate education focused on more clinical models like law or medical schools. There is a fundamental difference between research and practice (although over time they can really start to blend, both in individuals and institutions, given the right set up, which is unfortunately rare), and I am not convinced that folks who have had only, or even primarily, research careers are well-equipped to teach students to be practitioners (and the best faculty I know are more than willing to admit this). Not because academics aren't awesome, knowledgeable people, but because the demands, skills, and daily life of a practitioner are simply very different from those of an academic researcher and educator.

This is where things start to bleed together a bit and the concerns about how to train graduate students for practice careers merge into the difficulties of "bridging" research and practice beyond training. This is also a topic that bubbles up all over the place, most recently for me in the conservation biology literature. Yesterday, a dear friend, also a practitioner, sent me a paper titled "Bridging the knowing–doing gap: know-who, know-what, know-why, know-how and know-when" by Philip Hulme that is quite helpful in getting at some of the challenges in linking research and practice. For me, the key one that stands out is the importance of tacit, implicit, intuitive "knowing" in practice-based work. The author says:
"In contrast to the explicit knowledge generated by scientists, many practitioners apply their own tacit knowledge when making decisions regarding their conservation goals and interventions. Such knowledge is intuitive, largely experience based and hard to define. As a result it is often context dependent and personal in nature. The failure of scientists to translate and consider tacit knowledge may be behind the lack of implementation of their research."
This is, for me, a crucial issue. There is a trend toward attempting to use research-based approaches to attempt to help practitioners, but I fear that they really miss the mark in a lot of ways because at the end of the day practice is not so much about research. The drivers for what we as practitioners know, how we know it, and what we do with what we know are just different. For example, in the science communication world there has been a focus on the "science of science communication," where, from what I can tell anyway, one of the goals has been to figure out how to have research inform practice, and also from what I can tell from my outside perspective, it is still quite a work in progress. And at least part of the reason for that is so many of us with primarily practice-based careers work largely off of subjective, experiential knowledge, and are actually rewarded for our ability to do that well (one of my favorite articles articulating the idea around this concept of mastery was on creating "chefs, not recipes"). So, it can be really challenging to be told by researchers, who can come in pretty strong, not to trust your primary mode of work, no matter how successful you are at it, or even just how necessary it is for you as a practitioner.

I will also note somewhat tangentially that I find the concept of "use inspired" research challenging (use-driven and useable/actionable are variants that make a lot more sense to me). At least as I've seen it explained at conferences and such, it feels a bit like "let me answer a question that is close to the one you'd like answered, but not quite" - and from the practitioner side it's a bit of an arms-lengthening approach that allows for a "have your cake and eat it too" on the research side, while still not being super helpful on the practice side where you need an actually useful (not just inspired!) answer on the right timeline.

The research community really taking on board Hulme's point above -- that understanding how deeply practitioners depend on tacit knowledge is important -- would be a helpful start toward a stronger bridge between research and practice for sure. As for training graduate students for practice-based careers, figuring out how to have them interact with practitioners on a deep level has got to be part of the solution. Whether that means moving toward clinical models where students spend significant portions of their training time in practice-based institutions, and/or universities creating more opportunities for practitioners to teach without having to give up the practice work that would make them huge assets to begin with, there are some pretty significant shifts that need to happen to move toward what is a worthy goal of better integrating the two.

One other thing I will say is that I think maybe difference between research and practice is fine on some level. If you look toward dual models where research and clinical practice are strong - say medicine, law, psychology - you still see pretty deep divides between research and practice that are a constant work in progress. And, if you believe that diversity is important, all approaches are welcome. We don't need to be moving in lock step at all times - there will be times when it's helpful and worthwhile, and perhaps times when it's counterproductive, unrealistic, and simply not necessary. And that's okay too.

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