How can research insights be made accessible to broad sectors of society? This column cites examples of successful communicators of scientific knowledge, and highlights the potential role of humor and anecdotes. The author also outlines some of his own experiences, and what works and doesn't work in communicating research in the contexts of Sudan and South Sudan.
Most of the time, it would seem, researchers are preaching to the converted – their peers. Their findings have the potential to inform policy and, in turn, have a positive impact on policy outcomes. Yet this doesn’t happen often because most peer-reviewed articles are published in journals whose readerships are largely drawn from the same constituency – namely, the academic and research fraternity.
The knowledge is thus ‘circulated’ among the like-minded while the consumer – or rather, the policy-maker – is scarcely reached. This is almost always true for research carried out at universities and specialized national research institutes and centers.
Part of the problem is the inaccessibility of academic research publications for the average non-specialist reader. Most of journal articles are long and can sometimes run into tens of pages of text. They also tend to be heavily loaded with technical jargon, or communicated with high-powered mathematics, possibly to impress peers, but at the expense of the time-starved policy-maker.
Linking incentives and recognition, such as academic promotion, at universities and research bodies to peer-reviewed publications entrenches this status quo. Yet there are examples of better ways of disseminating scientific knowledge to a wider readership besides peer-reviewed journals.
These include writing popular science books to disseminate core research findings, opinion pieces in major newspapers, and editing special interest blogs. Here, humor and anecdotes, instead of heavy technical jargon, can be used to communicate important research insights effectively to a very wide audience, including policy-makers.
For example, the late Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian Professor of Physics at the University of Cambridge, once noted in the introduction to his classic book, A Brief History of Time, that adding one extra mathematical equation to a book can reduce the potential readership by half. By writing in a way that non-experts can understand, Hawking was able to communicate some of the most difficult concepts in the cosmos, especially in relation to space and time, such as the Big Bang, black holes, dark energy, gravitational waves, and such like.
Hawking hoped to help a broad spectrum of his readers ‘catch a glimpse of the mind of God’. By leaving his ivory tower and using down-to-earth expressions, he must have persuaded many a cynical politician and chief executives of multinational corporations to increase the budget for ‘blue sky’ research; as well as inspiring young readers to enjoy science and consider studying science-based subjects at university. I even suspect that Hawking’s exposition of cosmological physics and its insights must have had a positive impact on the economic output of many countries by increasing appreciation of science in wider circles.
Moreover, examples abound in the social sciences of authors who have followed a similar approach to Hawking in making research insights accessible to broad sectors of society. They include Paul Collier, a development economist at the University of Oxford who in his book, The Bottom Billion, popularized the concept of the ‘resource curse’; or the negative impact of high-priced commodities, such as oil and diamonds, on national economies that depend largely on them for revenue. It became a ‘must read’ for both the activist and the keen policy-maker.
Another example is that of Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT, and James Robinson of Harvard University, in their book Why Nations Fail. The duo highlighted the importance of the nature of institutions, especially pertaining to economic and political governance as well as the rule of law, in the success or failure of countries around the globe.
These researchers-turned-authors and countless others, I believe, have accomplished their missions. Yet popularizing research insights through books is not the only way. There are other approaches.
The first is communicating research insights by writing opinion pieces (‘op-eds’) in media outlets, printed or electronic. This is challenging, especially when it implies restricting an article to just 800 words. I recall a painful, but necessary, experience six years ago of having to cut out important facts from an article I co-authored with Kathelijne Schenkel of Pax for Peace, which was published in Sudan Tribune.
The article summarized our research on oil revenue sharing with communities living in the counties of oil-producing states of South Sudan. It raised awareness and sparked enquiries from researchers interested in South Sudan’s oil sector and the role of China in developing it.
The second is blogging. For a good 13 years, I have written a blog bearing my name. My articles tackle all sorts of concerns, ranging from socio-economic development, to leadership, to governance, to education, to society and culture, mainly focused on Sudan and South Sudan.
Some of the articles appear simultaneously on the blog and in Sudanese national newspapers such as The Citizen, Khartoum Monitor, and Juba Monitor; as well as in electronic media outlets such as University World News, Sudan Tribune, Global Observatory, and SciDev.com, among others. Eventually, at the behest of a publisher, a collection of the articles was compiled and published as a book in March 2019 under the title South Sudan: The Path Not Taken.
While the title may suggest that the views expressed in the book never received a fair hearing by way of implementation, it is now paradoxically apparent that a lot of the ideas have contributed to policy debates, as some of themes advocated are currently being implemented by the government of South Sudan. These include the adoption of a floating exchange rate in 2015, the establishment of a semi-independent South Sudan Revenue Authority in 2017, and the scrapping of fuel subsidies in June 2018, among others. I also believe that this publication is likely to be influential in shaping the development path of South Sudan for a long time to come.
From this personal experience, I would like to encourage fellow researchers and academics of all shades to use blogs and social media to communicate their experiences, interests, and insights to national and global audiences that include policy-makers, lay people, special interest groups, and peers.
They need to write in a lucid style that is filled with humor and anecdotes in order to maintain the interest of readers and help them to understand what can be hard-to-grasp concepts. Links to articles can be shared on Facebook, professional networks such as LinkedIn, mailing lists, and Twitter, to mention just a few of countless possibilities.
John Akec is author and associate professor of mechanical engineering. He has been the vice chancellor of the University of Juba in South Sudan since March 2014. He blogs at www.JohnAkecSouthSudan.blogspot.com