Researcher activism: A voice of experience

By Dorothy Broom

Dorothy Broom (biography)

In reflecting on my researcher-activist role in women’s health, I’ve come up with six tips that may provide guidance to those embarking on such a role. The lessons I draw can also be relevant in other fields of endeavour, in population health, environmental research and beyond.

Tip 1: Build your legitimacy with those you are aiming to influence and those you are advocating for

My academic research in the 1980s and 90s on the politics of women’s health was distinct from my feminist political activism. Prompted by intellectual curiosity, I developed a research profile that fortuitously prepared me to take on an advocacy role at a time of major policy foment.

My publications and conference presentations gave me legitimacy with public servants charged with policy and program development; while my personal involvement in feminist social action gave me a different kind of credibility with social-movement actors.

Tip 2: Be a bridge if you can

The findings of my research were informative to both policy makers and the women’s health movement. My double-identity positioned me to serve as an interpreter between the two, a bridge to help them hear and understand one another, thus creating and elaborating fruitful common ground that resulted in Australia’s first National Women’s Health Policy and Program in 1989.

Tip 3: Seek to understand those you are trying to influence

When policy is the focus, politicians are typically also in the picture, and activist researchers need to understand their political motivations and constraints as well as what impinges on public servants. When the Australian Labor government that instigated the National Women’s Health Policy was replaced by a Coalition government, activists had to adjust their ‘pitch’ to emphasise constituencies with whom different politicians would identify.

Tip 4: Don’t ambush those whose cooperation you are seeking

When lobbying politicians, it is vital to keep their staff and relevant public servants in the loop. ‘Ambushing’ a Minister (equivalent to a Secretary in the US government), for example by criticising them in the press, will almost certainly sabotage the lobbying effort. Communicate with officers of government departments, and make sure you understand them as well as you want them to understand you.

Tip 5: Consider all the players in the area you aim to change

Not all research application involves politicians and policy-makers. Health service providers, professional associations, and private industry may also need independent research to guide their activities. My research with clients of women’s community health centres informed some mainstream health and social services about how they might attract a wider clientele, and better serve the patients they already had.

Tip 6: Play the long game and pass the torch

Activist research is a long game, not a quick fix. The election of conservative governments gradually eroded the National Women’s Health Policy’s progressive priorities and focus. Women’s commitments have persisted, however. A network of women’s health centres and service providers continued to seek my input. Because I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day work they were doing, I could help them see their objectives and activities as part of the ‘bigger picture,’ and my understanding of their context also shifted as a result of what they told me. While I didn’t set out to play that role, in retrospect I can see the value in encouraging and supporting the new generations of activists.

Your reflections welcome

What experience have you had trying to apply research to practical problems and issues? Do you feel confident about being a researcher activist? If not, what underlies your hesitation or uncertainty?

Biography: Dorothy Broom PhD is Emeritus Professor of Population Health at The Australian National University.

Dorothy Broom is a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

8 thoughts on “Researcher activism: A voice of experience”

  1. Ahh the dilemmas in intellectually-honest academia/research! Reflecting along the lines (and expecting to receive challenge) of the views summarised below, I find myself in agreement with and would endorse Dorothy’s tips listed in the article; they are each most useful, although in different ways for each of the two (researcher and activist) roles.

    My comments here are tendered from a different perspective and discipline from that of the article’s author. (Mine is one of an ageing, peripatetic [with experienced in academia {science, technology, law}, business, government service and utilities in Australia and overseas], and student of mathematics /systems with particular interests in complex adaptive systems [where life meets realities – including biological, ecological, socio-economic systems, learned/compliant/perverse behaviours and projects/programs]

    To explain my views, I submit that scientific research for integrity must always involve questioning; indeed all “great leaps forward” in scientific research have resulted from scientists prepared to question longstanding, conventional or “settled knowledge”. I illustrate by the story of Albert Einstein who, unable to accept the “new” concepts of quantum mechanics and uncertainty, lived his later career (although in a “tenured” position) in academic obscurity and isolation. Those who stop questioning, especially their own theories and work (or hinder others testing them) have lost the right to claim a “scientist” title.

    I have commented elsewhere that in an evolving society that is intent on sustainable progression there are four fundamental and essential values that need overall to be prized (and balanced so none dominates and suppresses the others). They are briefly:
    a. individual freedom – of thought, expression, association and endeavour,
    b. informed engagement – by citizens knowledgable of issues and arguments, with capacity for unindered critical thinking,
    c. social responsibility – for those unable to speak for or defend themselves, including future generations and others outside the society’s jurisdiction,
    d. deep respect for (especially while seeking to reform) cultural norms – history, tradition and heritage.

    Both social activism/”promotion”, and unhindered freedom (e.g. to research, present and critically debate “offending” views), are key within such a framework.

    It has been argued that an academic institution (or project) should resolve these roles by choosing to follow only one from these two. Certainly, drawing the proper lines between the roles of (1) social activism and (2) (freely questioning) scientific research, particularly when the choice can impact differently on funding prospects, is difficult and can create moral hazards for research projects and institutions.

  2. Thank you for this post, Dorothy. Our research team has been thinking about the connections between research programs and the possibility of activist work. There are definitely many different views on this and tensions, given the persistent (yet, naive) idea that ‘activism’ is political and academic work is ‘neutral’…

  3. No questions – but wanted to note that I really enjoyed reading about your learned and lived experiences and insights: really appreciated you sharing. Best wishes, Sean.

    • I appreciate your comment, Sean. I wish I could say I knew those lessons when I was doing what I did. They were lessons learned from the doing, and unearthed in lively conversations with Gabriele Bammer.

  4. That’s a provocative question, Tim, and it deserves careful reflection. I’ve got two quick reflections. First, when there are multiple constituencies with contesting interests in a policy, then influence is probably an appropriate aim. For example, advocates for marriage equality used evidence about mental health to lobby the Australian government to amend the Marriage Act, but they were aiming for a specific outcome – that is, they wanted to influence policy. Second, much as I like the idea of all parties being as well informed as possible to work collaboratively toward an optimal policy result, my observation is that some stakeholders wield considerably more power (financial and political) than others. In those circumstances, it may not be realistic to assume that aiming simply to ‘inform’ will cut through sufficiently to shape policy discussion.

    • Thanks Dorothy, I appreciate the thoughtful response and I think it raises to two key points that my question does not touch on: 1) Who are the stakeholders? and 2) What are the power dynamics? It is great to hear your thoughts on this. Overly powerful stakeholders probably can, do, and will disrupt the utility of open information communication. After all, even if we wanted to ignore these dynamics . . . we know that speaking clearly about research findings, in the setting of a particular policy question (even if you have no specific policy aims), can sometimes be described as advocacy (particularly by overly powerful stakeholders!). Thank you so much for these additional insights and for starting this conversation.

      : )


  5. Thank you for these insightful comments on the interface between policy and research. My question centers around the underlying goals of working in this space. It may sound like semantics, but I think it merits discussion. Is “influence” the best goal? Here’s what I mean: a goal of influence (or activism) often has embedded within it a predetermined/rigid notion of what policy outcome would be best. A goal of “informing” may be preferable because it allows more diverse evidence to be used by stakeholders, decision makers, and constituents. If the evidence is more accessible to all, then decision makers can make their decisions in the light of informed constituent and stakeholder scrutiny. Does this perspective help to advance the role of research and evidence in our policy making? Thanks again for your perceptive post and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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