A researcher’s guide to making the world a better place

We’ve asked our #DataImpactFellows to write a post on the theme of ‘change’. 

Here, Bozena Wielgoszewska shares her guide to making the world a better place.

 

Creating social change is not easy.

It involves changing the status quo, dislodging existing dogma and power structures, and developing new habits and conventions.

It requires time, persistence, and support from a variety of stakeholders, who often have conflicting interests.

Despite all these obstacles, change is inevitable. We live in the era of unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and political turmoil. However, as often emphasised by the creators of Gapminder, on a global scale far fewer people live in extreme poverty, we have higher income and we live longer. COVID-19 prompted communities to look after its most vulnerable members, swans have returned to the canals of Venice, and air pollution is diminishing.

While change often happens regardless (or even against) our wishes, there are aspects of society to which researchers can contribute, by providing evidence, creating understanding, or advocating for change where it is needed, usually by following these three steps.

Step 1: Ask the right questions

Good research questions are timely, contemporary, clearly formulated, feasible, relevant, and aim to make the world a better place.

A thoughtful Bozena in Times Square

Image: a thoughtful Bozena in Times Square, New York

Asking such questions is difficult, because it requires an extensive understanding about the current state of knowledge in the field.

This is where a comprehensive systematic literature review and listening to the advice of your mentors is often useful. Although saying “I don’t know” may be outside of your comfort zone, this should be the answer to your research question at this stage of the process.

Asking the right questions also requires immense perceptiveness and empathy.

As humans, we often grow accustomed to the way things are, and have been for as long as we can remember. We not only fail to notice areas that need improvement, but we also fail to recognise that improvement may even be possible. It is easy to shrug and say: “it is what it is”. Good research questions challenge these views and allow us to view things from a different, yet unexplored perspective.

Good research questions are also objective.

We all have our preconceptions and prior beliefs, whether we are aware of these or not. As researchers, we also have hopes and dreams of the revolutionary breakthroughs we will make. However, this is not a place to express these. The answers to good research questions provide new insights and contribute to knowledge, no matter what these answers may be. If the research findings do not confirm your prior beliefs, you may have to change your beliefs.

These questions are also possible to answer, and policy-relevant – more on this below.

Step 2: Conduct high quality research

Once you have asked a good question, you can start answering it. For this, you will need data and methodology.

Some questions are best answered with qualitative approaches, such as interviews, or focus groups. For other questions quantitative approaches, which usually involves processing large databases, may be more appropriate.

A research onion may be a useful aid in making these decisions (I think they called it an onion not only because of the visual resemblance, but also because it seems to elicit a similar reaction, once you start peeling the layers off).

No matter what approach you decide to follow, from choosing the appropriate philosophy, to various ways of gathering and analysing data, it is always good practice to have (and write down before you forget!) a convincing justification for all the decisions you make. These reasons could be rooted in theory or based on previous studies. In some cases, pragmatism can also be convincing.

However, doing something because someone else said you should, or not doing something because it seems like too much hassle, are never good reasons.

Understanding the rationale behind the decisions you made is important for another reason – it helps to uncover the limitations of the research.

For example, qualitative research can be very insightful, but it is also selective and may not be representative of the underlying population of interest. Quantitative research, on the other hand, is more likely to be representative, but less likely to provide answers to “how” or “why” questions. Mixed methods can address the limitation of both, but don’t even get me started on the conflicting epistemologies. The limitations are inevitable part of research process and knowing them well makes the research better. The aim is not to do perfect research, but to do the best research possible.

Once you have gathered and analysed the data, it is time to interpret the results, both in the context of previous studies in the field, and in terms of your expectations and hypothesis.

Perhaps you discovered something unexpected.

Perhaps you confirmed previous findings.

Perhaps you expected that previous findings would not be confirmed, in the given context.

Perhaps you need to revisit some of the decisions you previously made, and double check for potential mistakes along the lines.

Whatever it is, you are getting closer to finding an answer to your question, so never give up!

Step 3: Communicate the findings

Once you have the answers to your questions, it is time to share.

communicate the findings

Image: communicating findings to a group of people

There are three main audiences for academic research:

  • other academics
  • policy makers
  • members of the public.

These groups are not, by any means, mutually exclusive, but they may require the findings to be communicated through different channels and with different degrees of academic jargon.

Fellow academics are the most likely group to be interested in the thought processes you went through in steps 1 and 2, and to sympathise with you. They are also most likely to pick your research apart and question the robustness of your findings. The convincing justification for the decisions you made in step 2 will be most useful with this audience.

Policymakers are unlikely to be interested in that time you shed a tear over the research onion. They are more likely interested in the policy recommendations of your research – what should they do to make the world a better place, and why they should do it.

Policy-relevant research questions are more likely to spark their interested in your research. There are some aspects of society that can be changed by policy, and others that policymakers have little influence upon. However, they are your best chance of translating research findings into a real-life impact, so take the time to formulate a few, clear policy recommendations.

The members of the public may be your most important audience – voluntarily or not, they pay taxes in order to have access to independent research and they deserve to understand why this is useful.

Take the time to translate your research findings into accessible language, and to find communication channels that they engage with.

You may have not screamed “Eureka!” at any point of the research process, but you may have sparked an interest, provided an alternative point of view, constructed a platform for further research to build upon, spoke out for those whose voice goes unheard, inspired, encouraged or empowered someone to make the world a better place.


Bozena Wielgoszewska is one of the UK Data Service Data Impact Fellows 2019 and a Research Associate at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

She primarily works on a project which aims at harmonisation of the income and earnings data across three cohort studies: National Child Development Study (NCDS), 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Bozena started working on the Gender Wage Gap project in October 2019. In September and October this year (covid-19 permitting), she will be in Geneva  to work with Mathias Studer on the Gender Pay Gap Project, using the methodology developed by Bolano and Studer.

Bozena was awarded a PhD from the University of Edinburgh in July 2019.

Follow Bozena on Twitter.

 

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