Bridging Research and Practice for Catalysing Change

By Dr Hemant R Ojha


Is it possible to do a good research as well as become an agent of change?

James Watson and Francis Crick did not think of themselves as agents of change when they were researching the tiny twisted-ladder structure within living organisms that later came to be known as DNA. And Einstein perhaps never imagined his mass-energy equitation of 1905 would assist in the creation of atomic bomb, putting the entire humanity at risk. Research has a political consequence – regardless of whether researchers recognise it or not.

The question then is – should researchers also think about the intended consequences of their research right at the beginning? Most bio-medical researchers often do – when they look for drug formula to kill malaria or fight cancer.

The case of social scientists or those who want do tread the interdisciplinary terrain is not that straightforward. Just imagine – you are doing research on poverty and hunger and interviewing hungry children in Chad. Can you just fill the survey form by asking questions and not offering some food to the hungry children? Most of us will surely share our lunch with them and even buy some food before asking for an interview.

Sharing your food is just a case of immediate response to the problem, but what will you do when you are doing a political science research to understand violence and civil war that is rooted in some despotic political leader (s) capturing power and resources? You can’t just go to the street and shout ‘down with the regime’. Much more complex than sharing food. And you cannot also just collect data and come back from such situation. Then where is the fine balance between doing research and doing some action for change?

I think it is partly a matter of choice. If you want to stay in the scholastic world, then stay there. There is a lot to be done to change wrong theories out there. But if you think our life is too short and we’ve also got to do something for the real world, then we need to find a problem domain to engage: we cannot connect our research to every problem in the world. In my case, I tried to keep myself to issues around natural resources, their governance and livelihoods of the poor in Nepal and South Asia – and more generally around the Himalayas (this sounds too big still). I have taken part of my article writing time to set up organisations and learning groups – working with colleagues. And the most important learning I have gained is not from University lectures (I do not want to downplay the value of lecture to the extent Steve Jobs did) but working with colleagues to tackle particular policy or practical problem.

But as researchers, we approach the problem differently – perhaps akin to what John Dewey clarified his position:  he wanted to “intelelctualise practice” and not “practicalise intelligence”. If we are doing full-fledged development works, then we have to translate knowledge into action, or ‘practicalise-intelligence. But how we exactly manage the balance is the million-dollar question, and it depends on where you are located institutionally and what freedom you have to make a choice. I have tried to avoid full time career in any one organisation or a program, as I wanted to explore what I think would work best for me – in the spectrum between research and practice. I have seen great people who have done inspiring work from academic domain to impact practice, and from practice domain to influence academic world. So the division is not always a barricade to move between the domain.

I have two calls to make – one to researchers (social science oriented ones) and another to practitioners. Researchers, my call is that let’s situate ourselves in some problem contexts and try to help people and societies on the ground to tackle problems by using our faculty of knowledge. There is a lot for researchers to add to the practice of deliberation to find solutions and contribute to innovation. Remember, most of the scientific writing is not read – and reading attention is captured by a small fraction of the best material that is published (so the ‘publish or perish’ pressure is killing many of us – when we are forced into the number game).

For practitioners, my call is this – we should entertain a space to experiment, fail, learn, and then to innovate. We should also recognise some critical learning space within the domain of management of practice. There are moments when incremental change simply do not work – appreciate radical changes too, even when that means some immediate loss.

We need to bring research and practice together, without collapsing their unique values. More intimate dialogues needed among the peoples residing in the two different worlds. And we also need more people of the hybrid breed – those who can do research in and through practice, and those who can practice while doing research. If innovation or prosperity is the consequence we anticipate from our research and action, then we cannot afford to live with the disconnect that exists currently.