Researc h to practice is the central preoccupation of LIRNEasia. We differ from conventional researchers in our fixation on how to convey our research to policymakers, regulators, senior managers of operators and to the symbolic universe they live in. We choose our research questions and methods with this end in mind and we conduct our research on schedules determined by the need for effective communication to these key stakeholders. We measure success by whether the research that we communicate catalyzes changes in laws, policies, practices and worldviews .
In this light, the SSRC organized pre-conference seemed an ideal academic event to attend after many years. I had attended many discussions on researc h in practice while in academia. There was a difference this time.
In 1993, for example, there was a memorable impromptu debate between Eli Noam and Tom Streeter about the efficacy of directly addressing policy makers/ regulators. Eli was of the opinion that it was effective provided it was done right. Tom and several others disagreed, claiming that the channels were rigged against all but powerful corporate interests. I recall this debate very clearly, because Eli, who in addition to his academic role at Columbia was at this time a Commissioner of the New York Public Service Commission, made me a prop in his argument, referring to an intervention that I had made before his Commission. He stated that coming out of the blue (Ohio to be precise), I had upset the well laid plans of some of the largest companies in the country with regard to telecom privacy rules . I was over the moon to get this certificate of efficacy from a Regulator.
However, I knew very well that my intervention had been effective mostly because Eli and his colleagues were primed to give weight to privacy concerns and that my intervention had given them a good opportunity. Two hands were needed for that particular act of clapping; both were not mine.
The debate then was between direct intervention (like mine) and indirect intervention through the media. Media coverage influenced policy makers while direct intervention did not, Streeter et al. argued. In our practice, we play both sides: direct intervention is the preferred mode, but we do believe there is a strong role of media, which constitutes the symbolic environment which our audiences lived in.
There was little discussion on these lines at the 2008 meeting. The focus was on activism: How could scholars communicate effectively to activists? How could they engage in research with activists? Should they become activists? And of course, there was the ritual grumbling about the failure of the university and its reward structure to provide incentives for activism or research of value to activists. There was also hope expressed that the discussion would be conducted in a park, instead of in the comfort of a conference hotel.
It made me wonder whether the Canadian and US societies had abandoned the center in the past 15 years, or whether it was simply a manifestation of the kind of people who attended these kinds of discussions. After all, in 1993, the organizers had rustled up real live regulators and policy makers like Eli Noam (there were a few others too). This time all they had for anyone connected to the policy process was me; and I had come on my own initiative, not because anyone had invited me. The problem, it seemed, had been defined by the organizers in the following fashion: research to activist groups to media to policy process.
Was this because there was too much research and too much information in the system? Direct communication would simply get drowned out, the implication seemed to be. It was only with the ability of activist groups to ratchet up the intensity of the communication, especially on the non-rational side (recall the anti WTO street protests), that change would occur. But are street protesters interested in research results or reasoned arguments in the first place? They are certain of the answers; why bother with evidence? Perhaps this is the larger and more productive challenge: getting activists to appreciate the value of evidence.
I talked about successes: not only about the changes we had made to Indian and Indonesian policies through proactive evidence-based interventions; but also about the successes achieved through the evidence-based but reactive and a bit more shrill intervention in the case of the regressive mobile tax in Sri Lanka last year. No one else did. It was all about inputs and processes and wishes and complaints. Perhaps it is considered immodest in these circles to talk about outcomes? Perhaps there were no outcomes that could be reported from the activist model?
May be actual changes in policy were not that important any more? The Chair of the group that I spoke in, Joe Karaganis of the SSRC, asked me whether we had any success in communicating research effectively to non-government actors (I paraphrase). I recounted the unintended consequence of shifting Sarvodaya from a sole focus on relief and recovery in relation to disasters to a broader focus on preparedness and risk reduction, in addition to relief and recovery. This is our long-haul project. We have changed minds, but we have still to get to a real result: given the difficulties of getting the sustainability phase of HazInfo up and running, we are still short on outcome.
Did I learn anything from the exercise? I have greater confidence in our approach. I am skeptical still about working through activists in a specialized area such as ours (where are these activists in Asia anyway?). Besides, I was not presented any evidence of the efficacy of this approach. I do hope that SSRC will keep this group of committed individuals focused on the prize of actually changing things in the real world. The tendency I have seen among NGOs in Asia to basically see communication among themselves and for themselves as an end in itself should be avoided at all costs. I wish this group success in their endeavors.