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Making Your Research Applicable for Mainstream Audiences

Four ways to extend the reach of your scholarly work beyond academe.

December 8, 2021
 
 

Many academics I work with struggle to make their research applicable for audiences outside academia. They’re doing important, even ground-breaking work, but they aren’t sure how their ideas can make the leap from labs and libraries to newspapers, boardrooms, hospitals and the halls of government.

If you are a scholar, you are probably used to thinking about how your research applies and where it fits within the academic landscape. A journal article starts by reviewing the literature and explaining how the new study builds on existing academic knowledge. A conference presentation closes by discussing what the findings add to our body of knowledge on the topic and what questions future research might explore.

By taking a broader view, you can use this same approach to apply your research to what’s happening in the world around you. How does your research build on what we, as a society, already know? What implications does it have for everyday life? What questions does it raise for the future? At my organization, Footnote, we collaborate with scholars to help them answer these questions and build out communication strategies for sharing their ideas with a wider audience.

Below are four ways you can make your research applicable to policy, business, public health and people’s everyday lives, along with examples of how some of the academics we collaborate with at Footnote have used these techniques.

  1. Explain why your research matters to your audience. When trying to place op-eds written by academics, the No. 1 thing we hear editors at mainstream media outlets say is “Tell me why this research matters,” or, put another way, “Why do my readers care about this?” If you want your research to have an impact, you need to understand its importance for your intended audience. Does it help people better understand their world? Does it point the way to a potential solution for an important problem? Does it offer a new perspective on an intractable issue?

    Kalinda Ukanwa, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, studies algorithmic discrimination and the impact it has on businesses. While the technical details of her research are of interest to her academic colleagues, what matters most to the broader public is her finding that biased algorithms can hurt a business’s bottom line. Much of the existing discussion about algorithmic discrimination focus on fairness and equality, and the idea that it can also impact profits is an important addition to the conversation. Ukanwa published an article on her work in The Boston Globe that puts this key finding front and center in the headline: “Algorithmic bias isn’t just unfair—it’s bad for business.” The article emphasizes, right from the beginning, why her research matters to nonacademic audiences.
  1. Find your way into the news cycle. You should ask yourself not only why your research matters, but why it matters right now. In today’s oversaturated media landscape, capturing people’s attention is a challenge. Your best chance of making an impact is to hitch your research wagon to the issues and concerns that are currently at the top of people’s minds.

    Marco Giacoletti, also an assistant professor at USC, studies housing and rental markets. Last spring, he saw an opportunity to connect his research to an issue that was capturing the attention of the broader public: rent prices in major cities tanked during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people were wondering whether prices would rebound as the crisis subsided. Drawing on his overall body of knowledge on the topic, Giacoletti published article in Fast Company about what trends people should watch to see where rent prices were headed. This was his opening to take his research and expertise and make it applicable to the immediate concerns of the public.
  1. Use real-world examples that make complex ideas clear and concrete. While anecdotal evidence may be irrelevant when conducting research, it is an important part of communicating research. Academic research tends to be abstract by nature, dealing in patterns and generalizable findings. But human beings often find narrative stories more engaging than numbers and facts. Real-world examples help make complex ideas concrete and intelligible to new audiences.

    Faculty from Stanford’s Byers Center for Biodesign wanted to share their ideas about how the pandemic transformed how we value health care and make the case for the importance of what academics and health technology industry professionals call “health economic value.” To make this complex concept concrete, their article for Newsweek brought in numerous examples of how health care is changing, from wearable devices to outpatient surgery centers, as well as stories of specific companies that are taking new approaches to providing health care. These kinds of examples, stories, case studies and anecdotes help bring complex research and ideas to life.
  1. Share lessons of your research that people can put into action. Effective research communication can offer people a new perspective on an issue they care about, help guide them to make better decisions or influence how they live their lives or do their jobs. Your audience wants to understand not only your research but what they should do with it. Provide them with concrete, actionable lessons that they can apply in their own lives.

    Brown School of Public Health professor Joe Braun studies how chemicals like phthalates affect children’s health and development. He wanted to inform parents about how the chemicals in common household items could be impacting their children. Most of these readers don’t care about the nitty-gritty details of the science or learning the names of all the different chemicals. What matters to them is what they can do to protect their kids. With that in mind, Braun published an article in a parenting outlet Fatherly listing simple, concrete steps parents can take to reduce toxic chemicals in their homes.

Many scholars and researchers entered their field because they wanted to have an impact and make the world a better place. By putting these four approaches to use, you can extend the influence of your research far beyond your fellow academics and demonstrate to the broader public how it applies to their lives.


Diana Brazzell is the co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, a communications group that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience. She collaborates with scholars and academic institutions to translate their research into accessible, engaging op-eds and articles for outlets such as The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, The Hill, Newsweek, Fast Company and Harvard Business Review. If you’d like to learn more about how to make your work applicable to a broader audience, please contact her at [email protected].

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