It’s Baader-Meinhof time again. I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve heard about or talked about “social license” in recent meetings with researchers and universities. It is increasingly the destination of many conversations about research impact:
Many of these discussions then turn to examples where the social contract between researchers and the rest of the world has gone wrong — where the social license to operate has been revoked. For example, communities that are the subjects of (and / or the intended beneficiaries of) an area of research becoming fed up with being “subjects” and “beneficiaries”, and feeding back to the researchers along the lines of “we’re sick of you coming here for a week, poking us with needles, lecturing us, and then disappearing never to be seen again.” There is apparently an Alaskan native saying, “Researchers are like mosquitoes; they suck your blood and leave.”
My attention was focused on this by a quote in a research project that I wrote about earlier this year: “A lot of researchers have an ambition to work with marginalized communities but they don’t already have a relationship with those communities. You need to make sure that the process is set up in a way that tries to shift that power hierarchy as much as possible.” It intersects with other heated debates from the last couple of years:
“the public have had enough of experts” (UK politician tries to undermine credibility of those arguing against his position on Brexit, and and opens the door to ready dismissal of all scientific evidence)
we can’t trust the news, because algorithms are being manipulated by SEO-savvy political teams (want to push news about your liaison with a model further down the rankings? push a bizarre story about your hitherto unknown hobby making models)
politically-motivated cuts to science funding
Given this backlash, with researchers seen as (at best) irrelevant or at worst self-serving “academic saviors”, are researchers in danger of seeing their social license to operate being revoked? If so, what should we do?
For me — and of course, Miles’s Law likely applies here — this alarming trend is yet further evidence that better communication is needed to break down the barriers between researchers and the wider world to which they contribute so much. And this engagement needs to happen much more consistently at earlier stages of the research process. “Relevance” continues to be a critical concept (another quote from our research project: “We’re in the post-truth era: it’s difficult to open doors and have a conversation with certain communities. It needs deeper engagement – you can’t just rock up on your science bus and expect them to listen! You need to make sure you’re relevant in the first place, because why would they bother to speak to you otherwise?”) but another that is gaining momentum is “co-creation”. It’s not a new concept but I heard a great talk about it this week from a research funder, Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy at Carnegie UK. She talked about use of academic evidence being low because of a lack of engagement and co-creation early in the research process, with academics pushing back on co-creation in particular because of concerns that it is a more expensive, time-consuming approach to research, and one that is outside their comfort zone, both in terms of being culturally complex (managing behavioral norms of non-academic partners) and in terms of raising the bar of expectation / recognition (as Wallace put it, going from being the “big fish in a small pond” creating academic evidence, to a small fish when it comes to creating change).
It is perhaps ironic that more widespread communication and engagement with research can be seen as both the source of the current backlash, and part of the solution. Perhaps, to borrow the Tuckman model, we have been through the “forming” phase of engagement, communication, and co-creation, and are in the “storming” phase. Academia needs to hold steady and double down on engagement before the promise of “performing” results in renewal of its slightly dog-eared social license.
 Quoted in Cochran et al. “Indigenous Ways of Knowing: Implications for Participatory Research and Community”. American Journal of Public Health. 98 (1): 22–27. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2006.093641