How to Generate Research Ideas That Impact Society

Focusing only on scientific advancement keeps us from addressing the kinds of problems that motivated us to pursue science in the first place, write Adam Seth Levine and J. Nathan Matias.

How do you generate new research ideas? When Jill Dimond first interviewed women at domestic violence shelters, she was taking an unusual path for a computer science grad student. As she cataloged stories of abuse, she realized women needed a new place to tell their stories, find support and organize for change. So she worked with a nonprofit to create a website to achieve that goal.

Some advisers might have warned Dimond away from work that looked too applied. But as more women told their stories, Dimond’s adviser encouraged her to continue. Using software Dimond created, Hollaback!, a nonprofit that works to end harassment “in all its forms,” organized thousands of people in 50 cities, 18 countries and nine languages to organize against violence against women. Dimond’s dissertation research, which bridged computer science and political science, won computer science awards and advanced theories of technology and social change.

Many researchers share Dimond’s underlying goal. They want their work to impact both science and society. Yet they often aren’t sure where to start when the goal is not only advancing scientific understanding but also creating knowledge that helps solve real-world problems.

Here we suggest one path forward: initiating one or more collaborative conversations with practitioners, community leaders and/or policy makers.

When academics start with the research literature, we tend to ask questions about who says what, using what methods, and what gaps exist. These aspects are essential for advancing scientific understanding. Yet focusing only on them can unintentionally lead us away from thinking about how our work might also address the kinds of problems that motivate people to pursue science in the first place: to cure disease, to eliminate poverty, to reduce polarization, to improve economic mobility and so on.

We suggest asking another question when starting a new project: “With whom should I speak about the problems I care about?” Graduate students can pose it to themselves, and colleagues and advisers can ask it of each other. To be sure, some already pose this question on a regular basis, yet our experience is that doing so is certainly not ubiquitous.

Collaborative conversation can be helpful in three ways. One is by revealing new ideas. For example, political scientists’ idea to study the impact of social pressure on voting came from a conversation with a campaigner in Michigan. That practitioner had noticed that the threat of public exposure from not voting might increase turnout. The resulting research improved our understanding of social pressure as a motivational force, while also greatly influencing get-out-the-vote efforts in races across the country.

Continue reading on Inside Higher Ed.