Why Do Practitioners Want to Connect with Researchers? Evidence from a Field Experiment

Published online on July 22, 2021 in PS: Political Science & Politics


Researchers often want to increase the broader societal impact of their work. One way to do that is to discuss research findings directly with practitioners. Yet, such interactions are voluntary and do not regularly arise, which raises a key demand question: Under what conditions do practitioners want to connect with researchers? This article shows that relational considerations affect these decisions—that is, what practitioners expect the interaction will be like. I partnered with a US-based civic association to conduct a field experiment. I find that group leaders in this association are more likely to speak with researchers after learning that the researchers will (1) efficiently share information during the interaction, and (2) value practitioners’ knowledge. The results provide actionable guidance for how researchers should approach practitioners and also demonstrate one powerful way that social science evidence can inform efforts to bridge research and practice.

Researchers have a long-standing desire to increase the societal impact of their findings (Bowers and Testa 2019; Nyhan, Sides, and Tucker 2015; Sides 2011; Skocpol 2014). One way to do that is to directly interact with practitioners to discuss how and whether research findings are useful in a particular context. These interactions are examples of informal collaborations in which people with diverse forms of knowledge engage in a dynamic interaction that entails sharing information, being open to learning from others, and being mindful of the boundaries of what they know (Murray 1998).

From the perspective of researchers, directly interacting with practitioners in this way is beneficial for two reasons. The first is that it can produce powerful new research ideas (Green and Gerber 2010). This, in turn, can sometimes lead to more formal collaborations in which they work with practitioners on a shared project with mutual ownership and decision-making authority. The second reason is that direct interactions increase the likelihood that practitioners use research findings to inform their decision making. Scientific findings often do not speak for themselves but interactions enable a two-way flow of information that sharpens their relevance (Nutley, Walter, and Davies 2007).

The importance of interactions, along with the fact that they typically are voluntary, raises a key demand question: Under what conditions do practitioners want to connect with researchers? Previous work suggests several factors that matter. Practitioners need to perceive that researchers offer practically useful information (Druckman 2015), including an overview of a large research literature, evidence that will help them make an immediate decision, ideas about how they can better measure their impact, and/or ideas for a new formal collaboration (Levine 2020a). They also need to perceive researchers as trustworthy—that is, as having aligned rather than competing interests (Lupia 2014).

The importance of interactions, along with the fact that they typically are voluntary, raises a key demand question: Under what conditions do practitioners want to connect with researchers?

Building on this work, I argue in this article that there is another set of factors that matter: relational considerations. To understand why, first consider that a large literature in social psychology finds that people quickly and unconsciously apply stereotypes to evaluate others. These stereotypes exist along two broad dimensions: competence and warmth (Fiske et al. 2002). In part, these dimensions capture the factors mentioned previously—the perception that the other person has relevant information (competence) and is trustworthy (warmth). Yet, in addition to trustworthiness, warmth also reflects relational considerations regarding whether the experience of interacting with the other person is enjoyable—that is, what some authors refer to as the other person’s friendliness/likeability (Leary 2010; van Dijk et al. 2017).

As applied to the context in this article, there is good reason to believe that practitioners may be uncertain about whether interacting with researchers will be an enjoyable experience. For example, a 2019 survey of Americans found that 43% agreed that research scientists “feel superior to others” (Pew Research Center 2019). This finding echoes long-standing anti-intellectual currents in American public opinion (Cramer 2016; Gauchat 2012; Merkley 2020; Motta 2018; Zhang and Mildenberger 2020).1 For instance, Hofstadter (1966, 273, 275) noted that “applied science would have been immensely useful to farmers” in the nineteenth century, yet there was great “resentment” toward interacting with those who advocated using scientific methods to improve farming. Hofstadter (1966) also observed that many outside of the scientific community raised concerns about whether scientists are interested in efficiently communicating what they know with those who are busy and whose immediate goal is practical decision making. These examples echo interviews with nonprofit practitioners that I conducted in 2017 to better understand their hesitation about engaging with researchers (see the online supplementary material for more details). Two of the specific reasons why they thought that the experience might not be enjoyable reflected concerns about (1) whether researchers would be interested in hearing about what they know, and (2) how much researchers would respect their time constraints by efficiently sharing only the most practice-oriented information.

Taken together, recent and historical work suggests that practitioners may not automatically perceive that connecting with researchers will be an enjoyable experience, especially for two main reasons. Based on these considerations, I hypothesized that they will be more interested in connecting when they believe that the scientists will (1) value practitioners’ knowledge, and (2) efficiently share what they know.2 To test these hypotheses, I conducted a field experiment in which a large group of practitioners was given the opportunity to speak with a scientist about research related to their goals. I found that their desire to connect increases after receiving information that the scientist would be engaging in either of these two ways.

This finding contributes to a growing evidence base across the social sciences on how to connect researchers and practitioners, including in education (Penuel and Gallagher 2017), management (Bartunek 2007), public health (Cargo and Mercer 2008), and public understanding of science (Brossard and Lewenstein 2009). These other scholars suggest that relational considerations are vital by noting the importance of mutual respect. Yet, several questions remain unresolved, which this study aims to address. First, to my knowledge, previous work does not systematically study the formation question by comparing those who connected with those who had the opportunity to connect but chose not to. Second, and along these lines, when the argument is that both sides need to be mutually respectful, it may be unclear how to explicitly put that into practice. Doing so requires operationalizing what it means to be mutually respectful in a given context. Third, this article also makes a methodological contribution because, to my knowledge, this is the first field experiment to study the conditions under which new relationships between researchers and practitioners arise.

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