How academics can help tackle wicked problems

Our Early Career Research Fellow, Tanja Collavo, examines the reasons why there is a gap between research and practice.

Knowledge is fundamental to solving the wicked problems of our societies. But academia is very rarely explicitly included in the list of players that should contribute to solving global challenges or called upon as a provider of relevant and useful knowledge. Given the amount and quality of knowledge about global issues and potential solutions that sits within high education institutions all over the world, this looks like a missed opportunity. Why is this the case?

Firstly, academics rarely leave their “ivory tower”. Academic papers are not easy to understand for other audiences due to their technical and sometimes theoretical language. Moreover, potential users frequently discard them because they are too long to be read in a short time or to be grasped quickly. Researchers still try and connect with practitioners, i.e. individuals and organizations working in any sector, only at the end of their research projects or, in the best cases, when they are collecting data. This does not allow practitioners to inform the research project and leaves them skeptical about the relevance and applicability of findings. Therefore, trying to share knowledge in more immediate and simple forms, and engaging in a constant dialogue with practitioners who are working on wicked problems would be a critical step for academics, and their knowledge, to contribute to the creation of social and economic development.

Secondly, practitioners too frequently do not recognize the potential value of academic knowledge. In the past years, I have conducted interviews with several third-sector organizations and individuals working to improve the lives of others. I encountered many prejudices around what academics know and do not know, and I heard too often the idea that an organization already “gets it all”, given its track record and experience on the ground. The truth is, many practitioners are too busy with “survival” and day-to-day decisions to be fully up-to-date on their sector, on best practices, on what is coming next or what is happening in similar and connected contexts. Recognizing that academics have the privilege to get to know multiple sectors and/or organizations and that they have the time and neutrality to spot what is and isn’t working, might help practitioners to advance faster in the realization of their social goals and might also favor a stronger involvement of academia in the solution of wicked problems.

Thirdly, the current institutional context makes it difficult for academics and practitioners to collaborate. Academic careers are based almost exclusively on the number of publications and the prestige of the journals in which they appear. Publications usually require several years. Meanwhile, practitioners usually need to show short-term results, responsiveness to issues, entrepreneurialism and problem solving. This makes it risky to spend the time to connect with academics, who often present in-depth analysis and no course of action. Therefore, unless there is an effort to at least partially align the incentives and cultures in the worlds of academia and practice, collaborations might remain difficult.

Finally, it is difficult for academics and practitioners to get to know each other. Even when researchers and individuals working to solve wicked problems want to connect, they often do not know whom to reach out to ‘on the other side’ or how to get their attention. There is therefore a strong need for initiatives and intermediaries to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners, understanding where potential connections might lie and how to create them. Academic research centers, foundations, network organizations or international bodies like the UN would be in a privileged position to act in this sense.

Time is a precious resource when dealing with wicked problems and grand challenges. A better connection and knowledge exchange between academia and practice could reduce mistakes and the duplication of efforts and could favor the diffusion of best practices and a better understanding of different contexts. This, in turn, could improve solutions and accelerate the creation and growth of the social and environmental impact produced by different individuals and organizations. So why wait? The scale and urgency of the world’s challenges calls for immediate action, and each of us can make the difference at least in one of these four critical points.

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