Piirus is delighted to feature another guest blogpost. This post is from Dr Brian Southwell, who helps us to reflect on the researcher’s need for conversation.
Researchers around the world are embracing new ways to promote their work online. They are creating podcasts and posting to blogs. They are joining new social media sites created to host professional networks. That is generally healthy. In the rush to connect with as many different people as possible, however, we also may be missing some opportunities to fulfil long-standing needs we have for contemplation and conversation. We may think we are connecting with one another in unprecedented ways, but whether the increase in apparent network connections actually is meeting our needs for relationship-building and shared perspectives is an open question. These are human needs, individually felt. They also are societal needs, not always fully appreciated, as we are not spending sufficient time actually evaluating and considering research as a tool for social improvement.
My colleagues and I are responsible for adding to the network building frenzy, we have have created one of the recent additions to the array of new shows highlighting social science research. I currently host a public radio programme called The Measure of Everyday Life on WNCU 90.7 FM in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, media market in the US. WNCU broadcasts the show weekly. We then post a podcast version of each episode to via iTunes and other podcast feeds.
On its face, The Measure of Everyday Life offers a regular survey of social science research. We feature researchers who have published peer-reviewed articles and books related to work at highly credible institutions. Rigorous discussion of scientific research is central to the show.
I mention the example of the show, however, because I believe its success highlights deep interest among people, not necessarily in new research publications but in the human stories behind research and in the real and challenging problems that research sometimes addresses. Social scientists, and the policymakers and practitioners who benefit from social science, are really the stars of our show and they typically are most compelling when sharing insights about real failures, about their own motivating beliefs, and about the human side of their work.
We created the show because we believe that too much social science research ends up collecting dust on shelves in academic journals when it could be informing popular discussion and policy. As I have noted elsewhere, researchers do heroic work every day to ensure that our lived experiences inform academic literature but then that effort — to gather data on human trafficking or to investigate public understanding of genomics or to do survey research in areas experiencing war and conflict — goes unnoticed when those same researchers talk with family and friends about their work at the dinner table. Through the show, we have been able to highlight the challenging and rewarding work that such researchers do.
The growth of the show’s audience has been gratifying. People in more than 30 countries download the show. We have people listening in places like Brazil, France, Thailand, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Israel, Spain, Canada and Germany. We want that list to grow and we are eager to connect with people through social media as well. In fact, you now can follow @MeasureRadio on Twitter for updates and to contribute to our conversation and we would welcome you doing that today.
In order to continue to grow, we know that we need to create comfortable spaces for conversation each week. We need to allow people to take chances. When there are multiple guests, we need to invite people to disagree and yet also to seek to understand each other’s perspectives. We need to foster deliberation and not just advertisement of rigid beliefs. As a host, my job is to hear what people are saying and to challenge them in helpful ways and also to remain open to being wrong or misguided myself. If my guests and I can do that, we can model the type of dialogue about research as socially beneficial work that sometimes is missing from academic discussion.
If you are reading this, you likely already have some experience with research. What we need next are volunteers to help bridge the gap between academic researchers and the billions of people around the world who do not regularly engage peer-reviewed journals. Creating new networks of connected researcher profiles is undoubtedly a useful exercise in some ways, but we also need a dedicated corps of people willing to build forums over time that can reflect new issues and concerns as they emerge and that can help to translate academic research into policy debate and everyday conversation.
Dr Brian Southwell directs the Science in the Public Sphere programme in the Centre for Communication Science at RTI International. He also teaches at Duke University (through the Energy Initiative) and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (in Health Behaviour and in Mass Communication). You can follow him on Twitter @BrianSouthwell.