The morning of March 3 -- just days before COVID-19 coverage took over national and local media reports -- I woke to the heartbreaking news of the deadly tornadoes in middle Tennessee. Taking in the photos and updates, I was devastated.
Our research team had studied just this kind of event: a tornado at night, when people are asleep. If they do wake from a warning, they’re perhaps unprepared for where to go or what to do. We had received federal funding for that work. Check. We had partnered with the National Weather Service to share our results in three cities. We had a project website and infographics to cast a broader reach. Check, and check.
But as March 3 wore on, and what we knew about the extent of the devastation and death toll grew, I was troubled by questions. Had we done enough? Did the research matter? How could we have better served the public and kept people safe with our work?
Public-impact scholarship, in my field of social work, is defined in a recent review as “intentional efforts to create social change through the translation and dissemination of research to nonacademic audiences.” This kind of intentional scholarship is needed, urgently.
Calls for this have been made for years. Yet faculty members at research-intensive institutions, such as the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where I work, are still too often counseled to focus on grants and peer-reviewed publications. It’s not always said out loud. But it’s often implied that the financial dividends from a grant matter more than making an impact on the public. Faculty are conditioned to believe that numbers of citations matter more than policies changed or conditions improved.
My own line of research explores the consequences of weather extremes and climate change as matters of social justice. As disasters such as the middle Tennessee tornadoes; the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif.; and Hurricane Harvey in Houston increasingly headline our cable networks and social media streams -- or are personally felt in our own communities -- getting knowledge from the academy to society becomes a matter of life and death.
And this holds not just for climate research but also for all kinds of potentially applied science that can confront the rising tides of economic inequality, hate crimes and other pressing social problems. To not prioritize the public reach and impact of new knowledge concentrates academic resources among an elite and ignores the injustices experienced especially in marginalized communities that are, too often, just the ones “studied.”
Imagine instead that more academics intentionally shared their work publicly -- solidly informed by their research expertise -- to advocate for universal paid leave, support immigrant and refugee families, or sound an alarm about slavery’s impact on contemporary antiblack racism. How could lives change? What impact could we collectively have to call out social injustice and also offer sound solutions and recommendations for change?
I’m recently tenured and am, in fact, part of the broad system I critique. While I can’t change the extent of my own public work in the past, I can choose with intention how to pursue it in the future. I can choose how to work for institutional change so that public-impact scholarship is counted and valued -- and expected -- every day. Here, I offer six suggestions for how academics can contribute to a greater good.
Align values with action early on. I chose social work as my academic home because it is an applied profession. Social work research is supposed to inform policy and practice change, but it often falls short. Writing on how to advance public-impact scholarship institutionally, a group of social work deans and directors have argued for starting each new research project with public impact in mind: “What does one intend to learn, and what are the potential implications of what is learned for policy and practice? How will this research change people’s lives for the better? What is the societal injustice this research is intended to address?”
Schedule time. The National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity advocates having a daily writing habit, 30 minutes a day, for research productivity. What if, as academics, we did the same for public-impact work? What if we scheduled time every day to plan, create and disseminate some part of our research from behind the paywalls that prevent the public from engaging with our work? We should treat that time as nonnegotiable and not give it up for the myriad other demands that may distract us from pursuing public impact.
Break it down, get it out. Public-impact scholarship can take many forms, and smaller steps can achieve the goal. Use a morning writing session to answer the questions posed above -- before research begins. Or clean and analyze data efficiently, so that early findings -- clearly labeled as such, like work by the Institute for Justice Research and Development -- can be shared much sooner than the painstakingly slow peer-review cycle. Consider creating a two-page policy brief from your work. Or meet with a state legislator, policy brief in hand, about how the research can inform the proposal for a bill.
Learn new skills. Choosing the academy means lifelong learning. So, let’s learn new skills for how to effectively do public-impact work. Connect with other people on your campus interested in public-impact work and advocate for resources to learn skills together. At the University of Tennessee, for example, the faculty senate brought The Op-Ed Project to campus, a transformative training for the 20 of us who participated. Most recently, The Conversation was here for multiple sessions on public writing, encouraging faculty members to share their expertise far and wide beyond the campus. Affordable, easy-to-use software exists for producing creative infographics. And it’s never too late to learn how to tweet. Lifelong learning isn’t just about answering new questions and studying new methods; it’s also about developing new skills for making research matter and having public impact and reach.
Write differently. Crafting a compelling lede for an op-ed isn’t easy. That infographic copy, describing COVID-19 and how to protect community health? The best ones take effort to get the language just right. Good writing for public impact is often harder than expected because we are trained to write academically for the sake of peer-reviewed publication.
What to do? Let’s challenge ourselves with other forms of creative, written expression. Try a personal narrative like this blog post on climate change, grief and direct action. Or stand at the ready and write immediately in response to a current event, such as racial insensitivity and social media. Use questions. Tell a story. Write vividly and clearly. Write differently.
Pursue structural change. Ah, the institution itself. Who sets the rules for what “counts”? How do we change that? And how do faculty members who are marginalized or minoritized already -- who may be doing public-impact and other kinds of invisible or undervalued work -- add structural change to the list of more activities to pursue? Provosts, deans and tenured faculty with power and privilege, I write directly to you. Believe in this urgency. Provide trainings for faculty members and attend them yourselves. And most important, change promotion and tenure criteria to explicitly count public-impact work. Set the expectation, provide the resources and change institutional policy so that this is the essential scholarship of now.