The non-existent bridge between research and practice

In today’s contribution, Miriam Blikmans, research master student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, shares some thoughts on how she has experienced the gap between the worlds of research and practice during her first year in the academic world.

How it all began

My first serious encounter with research took place while I was conducting my bachelor thesis abroad. During a period of three months, the University of Örebro in Sweden gave me the opportunity to take a look into the world of research. I learned a lot: how to come to an innovative research topic, how to conduct more advanced statistical techniques, but most of all it taught me the power of research. During my study on the effectiveness of parenting programs for children with externalizing behaviour, I found that the reduction in children’s problem behaviour was partly due to a decrease in parenting stress. Although being overall effective, not all families benefit from these programs. I thought this insight into parenting stress as a working mechanism might help increase the effectiveness of these parenting programmes and therefore it could make a difference in the lives of certain families. Of course, I was a little naive, thinking that one significant study would prove that parenting stress is a working mechanism in practice. Still, this experience showed me the opportunities research provides to change the world for the better.

The gap

Although research can be a powerful tool to improve (clinical) practice, there is a gap between the ‘real world’ and the scientific field: While the scientific field hardly responds to the questions that teachers, psychologists and other practitioners come across, practitioners, on their part, hardly are aware of – or let alone make use of – recent research. This is a well-known problem and to solve this the two fields should both actively seek rapprochement (e.g. Korthagen, 2007).

Within the academic world, many scholars and universities state that this problem is high on their agenda. With this in mind, I chose to do a research master on the development and socialization of children and adolescents, so I could learn how to cooperate with the practical field to get answers to everyday problems. After about nine months in the world of research, I have to say I feel disappointed…

The academic island

Although academics seem well aware of the gap between research and practice and acknowledge the importance of closing it, scientific research is mostly practising its magic on an island. To illustrate this, I would like to share a few of the things I encountered in my studies so far.

First, directions for new research seems to be mostly based on filling gaps in the research literature, as one can see while reading meta-analyses or research proposals. The focus of the scientific field seems to be almost solely based on acquiring knowledge that is not yet there. This, of course, is in itself not a bad thing, but this leads to an abundance of unanswered research questions, leaving us wondering what to solve first. It seems that most papers don’t give directions in this from a practical point of view, while, in my opinion, the most obvious answer would be to look in ‘the real world’ and see what knowledge is needed the most.

Second, practitioners are not keen on participating in research. When trying to find schools to engage in an experimental study, more than once schools replied to me that they did not want to participate because it would distract them from their main goal: teaching. It seems research is not seen as something that could help their teacher practices later on. But then again, who would blame them: They’re being contacted by researchers who have their research plan completely worked out, for whom it is already clear why this research is important and who are now trying to persuade the school of its relevance. The purpose of the school seems only to provide data, although also they have their own worries, their own things they like to know. So who can blame practitioners when they claim that academic research is not relevant to (clinical) practice?

These are just a few things I encountered. The key point of this blog post is that while researchers are claiming that they want to close the gap between research and practice, it seems to me that new researchers within academia aren’t currently taught all the skills needed to form bridges. The focus is still mainly on scientific relevance whereby relevance for practice seems to be mostly forgotten. The link with practice is not entirely inexistent. However, its presence appears to be limited to the notion of clinical relevance in the discussion part of research papers or as a mandatory of grant proposals. My first year in the world of academia has made me wonder if clinical relevance is in the heart of the researchers.

What now?

A few weeks back someone asked me why I chose to do a research master. I had to think for a second and then answered with a chuckle: “I guess I wanted to change the world for the better”. We laughed a bit, started singing parts of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” and that was the end of it. But it kept me thinking: Am I still pursuing that goal or am I just trying to keep up with the pressure of academic life? So I decided that if I wanted to see change I would have to start with myself. Therefore, I will include a clinical internship in my master so that I keep in contact with the clinical field. Furthermore, I am aiming to set up a master thesis with a strong practical relevance, hopefully resulting in guidelines for secondary schools to help them with the emergence of smart phone use.

Probably and hopefully, I am wrong about the island of research. I am only a lowly research master student and my time in the academic world so far has only been limited. I would like to invite my colleagues in academia to prove me wrong, because the perception of this never-closing gap between research and practice is a depressing sight to see.

About the author:

My name is Miriam Blikmans. I am a research master student at the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands. I am specializing in the development and socialization in childhood and adolescence. During my master I will also obtain my clinical degree in pedagogics. In my future career I would like to bring research and practice closer together. Feel free to contact me through email (miblikmans[at]msn.com) or Twitter @mimabli.

Reference

Korthagen, F. A. (2007). The gap between research and practice revisited. Educational Research and Evaluation, 13(3), 303-310, DOI: 10.1080/13803610701640235


2 thoughts on “The non-existent bridge between research and practice

  1. As someone who spent over a decade in prevention practice, and is now involved in policy, I’ve certainly felt a lot of the same frustrations as Miriam describes in her excellent article.

    I want to suggest there are some reasons (in the UK at least) to feel that there are better links between research and practice communities driven at least in part by decisions that policy makers have taken.

    Here, we’ve had a resurgence in policy maker interest in ‘what works’, exemplified by the setting up of centres such as the Early Intervention Foundation and the Education Endowment Foundation.

    The latter is particularly interesting in that it not only helps schools understand what works to improve educational attainment it has been endowed with a significant amount of money to develop a research agenda. That means that it is in the process of running a number of large scale RCTs in settings that (as Miriam describes) haven’t always been receptive to research agendas. An example of this is the trial of the Good Behaviour Game that Mentor UK is currently running and is being evaluated by Manchester University, which involves 74 primary schools (37 in the delivery arm) in England.

    I think the keys for this sort of collaboration has been a) recognising that research needs to answer questions that are relevant to practice (how do we improve educational outcomes, the health of the nation, better community safety etc.), b) that interventions need to be tested in real world conditions as far as possible, c) we need to understand the cost effectiveness of interventions as well as their impact, and d) if they do ‘work’ (and are cost effective) we need to put thought into how they can be delivered at scale.

    None of that happens without a tripartite arrangement between research, practice and policy – we all need to see the relevance of engaging in the opportunities, we have to be clear eyed that the outcomes might not be what we’d wish, and that even where they do that this is only the beginning of a journey not the end.

    So thank you Miriam for talking about a really important issue for prevention science, but don’t give up hope that we can build bridges.

  2. True and worrisome… I thought time they were a’ changing…
    Very brave and appropriate decision for the future. I Always push my students not to pursue a research career without having spent at least 3 years in the field.

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