Overcoming the research-practice gap

posted in: Social innovation | 1

The gap between academics and practitioners is growing. There is misunderstanding and frustration as both talk past each other and blame each other for not understanding their constraints, needs and issues. But does it have to be that way?

Mind the gap.

When practitioners don’t understand what academics are doing, it’s not our fault

Corinna Frey, PhD student, CJBS
Corinna Frey, PhD student, CJBS

I came across the concept of the ‘research practice gap’ during an internship. All I wanted was to apply my academic knowledge and be able to better understand how my studies link with the daily practices of the organisation I was working in – and possibly contribute to improving practice.

However investigating their work and learning their practices, I was always wondering where the academic knowledge might fit in and all too often I realised that it wasn’t part of the organisational world.

Being puzzled by this observation, I realized that my impression was often resonating with experiences of many of my fellow students; sharing my confusion and concerns with professors, one comment stuck: “When practitioners don’t understand what we are doing, it is not our fault.”

There it was, at least one possible explanation why research isn’t part of the organisational world and I have to admit that I felt quite relieved; at least it is not our fault…

Irrelevant to organisational practise?

I was relieved for a while, but still found myself googling terms such as ‘research and practice’, realising that there is a whole field of studies and journals out there debating the ‘research practice gap’.

For my PhD, I decided to go deeper and went back to one of the organisations I interned with some years ago, trying to find out why ‘they don’t understand what researchers are doing’. While reading and talking to lots of practitioners within and beyond this specific organisational context, it began to dawn on me that I might need to rethink. I started to question their reasons for not using research or not reading our papers. What if practitioners understand it, but still don’t use it? Would this imply that it isn’t useful for them?

Practitioners are often critical of academic work (even on their own organisations) as irrelevant to pressing needs and issues. Indeed, understanding is not the issue; practical relevance is.

The real culprit? Institutional pressures on academics

This time, the explanation was rather unappealing and again it didn’t seem to cover the whole story.
What I then found fascinating is that on a micro level, discussing with individuals (both researchers and practitioners) confirmed that there is an interest in a stronger link and connection between research and practice. This lead me to think about the macro level, the broader institutional structures within academia, and it’s role in nourishing the ‘gap’. The following are interesting examples:

  • One institutional structure within academia refers to measuring success by counting publications in highly ranked journals, especially crucial for tenure track. However there is the wide agreement and experience that practice-relevant research often won’t get published, forcing academics to focus more on theoretical than practical questions.
  • Another institutional structure is the organisation of research into closed single disciplines, whereas the key practical challenges are multi-disciplinary in nature, rendering it difficult for academics to really investigate the questions most relevant for practice.

This could be the end of the post, blaming the wider institutional structures (of which there are many) for maintaining the ‘gap’. However if we accept that these frameworks are constructed, there is leeway for change, even on a small scale.

Small steps

  1. Don’t just blame the other side! It is important to understand why practitioners don’t read research papers or why academics might not pick the most relevant research questions.
  2. Get exposed to people outside your discipline! Being exposed to academics from other disciplines and practitioners will help you to see your research in a different light, exposing you to critical questions and providing opportunities of linking your paper to practice problems.
  3. Think about the practical value and implications of your work already before and during the research process, not just afterwards.
  4. Get engaged in initiatives that promote the exchange between research and practice.

Many more puzzles will need to be solved to understand the gap between research and practice and I hope this post is in itself is a small step and I invite comments from other academics and practitioners puzzling through the research-practice gap.

Find out more

CUSPE is an organisation run by and for early career researchers that aims to build stronger links between its members and government policy-makers.
Visit the CUSPE website

The Centre for Science and Policy helps the sciences and technology to serve society by promoting engagement between researchers and policy professionals.
Visit the Centre for Science and Policy website

  1. Hannah

    Hi Corinna,

    Interesting blog! You make some really good points regarding this “research practice gap”.
    You ask how, in light of the interest to better bridge academic research with business practices, we can design research that has practical relevance. At the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership we are working on a project called Nexus2020 to ensure businesses play an active role in this research design process.

    Find out more here: http://www.thenexusnetwork.org/projects/nexus2020-the-most-important-questions-for-business/
    I think you’ll find it explores some of the points you’ve raised…and remember to submit some of your very own research questions!

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