Drawing lines between researcher and advocate?

By Alison Ritter

Alison Ritter (biography)

Is it possible to be both a researcher and an advocate? Indeed, is there even a duty to be both researcher and advocate?

“Advocacy” has been seen by some in the academy as a dirty word. Oliver and Cairney (2019) distinguish between an ‘honest broker’ and an ‘issue advocate’, suggesting that advocacy crosses some line. Simon Chapman, who has championed public health advocacy, has noted that some people see it as a “fraught, politicised activity” (Chapman 2015), and “disparaged” (Haynes et al., 2011). In the comments on Dorothy Broom’s blog post Researcher activism: A voice of experience one “persistent idea” is that academic work is somehow neutral while advocacy work is political. Smith and Stewart (2017) nicely reflect the tensions when they contrast it as either a “disciplinary duty” or “political propaganda”.

These contrasting views on advocacy seem to rest on what is being defined as “advocacy”. For those who feel advocacy has a central role to play in effective research translation, the work (or key task) is to focus on the evidence. In this version of advocacy (as epitomised by Chapman) the key task is to “sell the research evidence”.

However there is an alternative view and definition of advocacy: advocacy as individual and/or social actions to persuade decision makers. When such a definition is used, it opens out the possibility that researchers can (and perhaps should) advocate for policy change through, for example campaigning, protest, symbolic public acts, withdrawal and renunciation, boycotts… indeed all the things that political scientist Gene Sharp includes on his list of 198 methods of nonviolent action (Sharp 1973).

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes advocacy for health as a “combination of individual and social actions designed to gain political commitment, policy support, social acceptance and systems support for a particular health goal or programme” (WHO 1995).

The third sector (by which I mean charities, social enterprises, and local not-for-profit volunteer-based and community services) has a different definition of advocacy, as demonstrated in this example “…active interventions by organizations on behalf of the collective interests they represent …, that have the explicit goal of influencing public policy or the decisions of any institutional elite” (Onyx et al., 2010).

Notably, few of these definitions of advocacy focus on the “research evidence” component. This begins to suggest that it is plausible to think about academic advocacy beyond “selling the evidence”. Indeed, it may even be a very positive move, in light of the position that the “selling the evidence” version of advocacy is seen as technocratic and elite (Smith and Stewart 2017), and divorced from the communities and the collective interests being represented.

I argue that academic advocacy needs to become a more democratic endeavour of empowering as well as speaking on behalf of marginalised communities.

This means extending the ‘academic as advocate’ beyond “selling the evidence;” and critically reflecting on whose collective interests are being represented. Issues of ‘collective interests’ become a central point for resolution. If researchers are advocates for policy change, whose collective interests are they representing? How grounded are those in community? And is the effort empowering of communities? Is it time to revisit Howard Becker’s question “whose side are we on” and seriously extend it to “who do we write for” as discussed by Jon Warren and Kayleigh Garthwaite in their blog post Whose side are we on and for whom do we write?

Academics (and their institutions) support advocacy that focuses on research evidence – leaning into the scientific findings and working out methods to ensure that these are effectively translated. I suggest that we need to move beyond this, open out the definition and acceptability of academics as advocates, but at the same time carefully consider our democratic intent and the communities we serve.

What do you think? Have you navigated being both an academic and an advocate? In your experience what are the pitfalls (on both sides)?


Chapman, S. (2015). Reflections on a 38-year career in public health advocacy: 10 pieces of advice to early career researchers and advocates. Public Health Research and Practice, 25, 2: e2521514.

Haynes, A. S., Derrick, G. E., Chapman, S., Redman, S., Hall, W. D., Gillespie, J. and Sturk, H. (2011). From “our world” to the “real world”: Exploring the views and behaviour of policy-influential Australian public health researchers. Social Science and Medicine, 72, 7: 1047-55.

Oliver, K. and Cairney, P. (2019). The dos and don’ts of influencing policy: A systematic review of advice to academics. Palgrave Communications, 5, 21: 1-11

Onyx, J, Armitage, L., Dalton, B., Melville, R., Casey, J. and Banks, R. (2010). Advocacy with gloves on: The “manners” of strategy used by some third sector organizations undertaking advocacy in NSW and Queensland. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 21, 1: 41-61.

Sharp, G. (2020, orig. 1973). Methods of Nonviolent Action. Albert Einstein Institution: East Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.

Smith, K. E., Stewart, E. A. (2017). Academic advocacy in public health: Disciplinary ‘duty’ or political ‘propaganda’? Social Science Medicine, 189: 35-43.

World Health Organization. (1995). Advocacy Strategies for Health and Development: Development Communication in Action. World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland.

Biography: Alison Ritter AO PhD is a drug policy scholar and Professor and Director of the Drug Policy Modelling Program at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She conducts multidisciplinary alcohol and other drug policy research, aimed at enabling decision-makers to respond with alacrity and success.

13 thoughts on “Drawing lines between researcher and advocate?”

  1. I am concerned that this post does not recognize the complexities of the scientist-advocate employed by a publicly-funded research institution. Such institutions must tread a fine line between respecting the rights of researchers to express and act on their values while also protecting the capacity of the institution to provide objective scientific information.

    For further comments, see my blog post https://www.voicesofeawag.ch/detail/freedom-of-expression-its-not-just-for-science/

    • The Eawag principles that Janet draws our attention to (“being accurate, exercising appropriate restraint, showing respect for the opinions of others, and making every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution”) are very valuable. As I have previously written, researchers are highly privileged voices in drug policy debate: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/DAT-06-2015-0027/full/html
      Recognising one’s positionality (whether that is as an employee of a research institution, a recipient of public research funds, or as a member of the public) is important.

  2. In our turbulent times, the question “about an academician and a advocate” should not be rhetorical. Colleagues have already given good answers to this question. However, I think that we should pay attention to three basic components of this issue that can play the role of “pitfalls”. These basic components are: science, academics, politics.

    The science:
    In the UNESCO Report on Science: Towards 2030 (2015), experts identified several types of science: fundamental science, science in the interests of the public good; science in the interests of commercial activity; state and non-state science, disciplinary and transdisciplinary science.

    Academics are people who are interested in participating in different types of science; they profess different religious, cultural and social principles and moral norms; most likely, as members of society, they have different ideas about the content of needs, benefits, values and goals, as well as ways to achieve them.

    Politics is a sphere of society’s vital activity related to obtaining, retaining and using power. Often, political norms are formed by politicians who phenomenally emerge from social existence and, after a few years, disappear into it without a trace.

    This systematization allows you to make a lot of different puzzles from academics and types of science. Each puzzle will allow you to predict the content of advocates’ speeches in defense of various policies. I am not sure that the results of these studies will definitely answer the question about “academics and advocate”. But perhaps these results will allow us to rephrase Alison Ritter’s question: Should Academics be advocate? In the new version, this question will be: Should Academics be legislators of politics and judges of socio-political processes?”.
    In this case, we will have to answer the question: what human qualities should academicians possess and what kind of science they should be representatives of. But this is no longer a difficult problem. This is a task that can be solved with the help of the philosophy of science and the corresponding scientific paradigm.

  3. The first thing to acknowledge, given the ever more direct relationship between funding and the endeavour, is the predicament research science is in. Surely we aren’t likely to restore trust in science and expertise by returning to the age of ‘enlightenment’, when it was in a purview of sponsorship and whim of wealthy elites. Regrettably, to an ever greater extent this seems to be the case, even if disguised by opaque corporate and institutional structures.

    Of course, there are other factors eroding credibility; hype driven publishing system, a ‘reproducibility crisis’, obsession with and favouritism of data over ‘ideas’, embedding of studies in commercial interests relating to means or definitions of end targets, etc.. From my perspective, one may also consider the role of science communicators in filtering and translation into fluff and fudge of ‘positive’ narratives.

    However, in terms of constructing an argument for better, Alison Ritter’s sound position is likely to encounter resistance and provoke counterattacks on at least two fronts, academic and ideological. Given the prevalence of dogmatisms, framing a call for integrity and consequentiality of research in terms of ‘advocacy’ is a brittle stance against vested agendas.

  4. Our NHMRC funded work into the qualities and characteristics of “influential” public heath research saw us look at the views of the 6 highest peer-ranked Australians in 6 topic areas and a wide rage of policy makers from ex-premiers, health ministers.senior bureaucrats etc. Many take-home messages, but none so clear as the almost universal view that “influence” was a lot to do with those who saw it as their duty and responsibility to explain and comment on the meaning & implications of their research to the public and policy makers. Any researcher who thinks that they can avoid answer the question which ALWAYS follows “what has your work found” …. which is “Well, what do you think should be done about it?” has come down in the last shower. It is not possible to maintain any credibiity by stammering something about “that’s for others to decide”. We published about 5 papers from this grant. All available open access (pretty sure …) in my CV found here https://simonchapman6.com/about/ (search for “Haynes” who was an author on all of them.

    • Hi Simon,
      Perhaps it does depend on the kind of ‘science’ and ‘research’ we are talking about. As a highly applied public health researcher, all my work does speak directly to policy recommendations and I personally feel obligated to answer the question ‘what should then be done’ (recognizing that my answer to that question comes from my expertise – in this case research evidence – and there are others with other types of expertise – such as lived experience – who may answer the question differently). But other types of science (eg basic sciences, or work that is theory-driven or contributing towards our social intellectual reservoir) perhaps cannot answer the question of ‘what should then be done’. But I can’t speak on behalf of those who do that kind of valuable research.

  5. I actually study this topic, in the context of the logic of complex policy issues. What might be considered a downside of advocacy is apparent today, namely the resulting belief that science is a political activity. Policy is made by the political system, where the nature of criticism is starkly different from the way criticism works in science. Respect for one’s opponents is rare. Emotions run high.

    In fact I would argue that the present supposed lack of respect for science is a direct result of several major policy issues being heavily populated by activist scientists. This is certainly true for climate policy.

    I take no position on whether activism is good or bad. It is just a matter of what to expect when it occurs. Politics and policy are a crude world.

    • Thanks David.
      I’m of the view, not shared by everyone I am sure, that research and science are not value neutral, and as such research is political (by its very nature). That’s why I think more exploration of the ‘collective interests’ which researchers represent (or not) is perhaps a possible way forward.

      The public’s lack of faith in experts (your “lack of respect for science”) is, I agree, partly contributed to by scientists. But not, as you suggest, because of their activism, but because of a vicious cycle: the promotion of citizen ignorance through the delegation of policy to experts, coupled with the resignation and cynicism generated by ‘fake news’, and perpetuation of the view of an ill-informed public (as argued by Jane Mansbridge and her colleagues and people like Sheila Jasanoff). The compact between the public and scientists has broken down. I guess I’m pondering our responsibility (as scientists) for fixing that; and how we “do” advocacy in this context seems vitally important.
      Best wishes
      Alison Ritter

      • I agree, Alison – researchers (like all human beings exercising agency in a context of action) cannot be value-neutral. Deciding what to research in the first place is value laden. Even mainstays of 20th Century philosophy of science like Karl Popper recognized this, but he drew a heavy-handed distinction between the inevitably value-laden business of choosing what to research and the research act itself, which he said remains neutral. Like David, he argued that when purposes and values are explicitly pursued or debated as part of science, it opens science to being discredited. He also claimed that this is a route to political manipulation of science, as politicians can legitimately impose their ideology onto what gets researched and how it is framed.

        However, I suggest that the complete opposite is true: if the purposes and values being pursued by scientists are not explicitly declared and opened to public and scientific critique, then science is wide open to political manipulation via funding calls and end user demands. I saw that very clearly in New Zealand in 2008-9 when the new National government chose not to fund a massive environmental policy science program on the grounds that it “used a Labour definition of sustainability”. That decision resulted in around 60 scientists losing their jobs.

        I suggest that activist scientists do less harm to science than scientists who don’t engage widely with stakeholders, so those stakeholders think they are addressing the wrong questions. Of course, welcoming the critique of scientists’ and funders’ purposes and values as part of scientific debate is no excuse for bad science: there are unscrupulous scientists who deliberately distort research findings for political ends, but it is possible to make a distinction between this and the legitimate pursuit of social values that, most importantly, have been tested through critique, both in the direct context of social research and in the scientific domain.

      • Andrew Campbell provides a thought-provoking perspective in regard to advocacy and researcher values in the 2013 article at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-15/campbell-scientists-in-the-political-arena/4574478

        Andrew has worked extensively at the research-policy interface, and is currently CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

        At the end of the article, he contends that:

        “When scientists cross the line into advocacy for a policy course, pushing a particular response to a ‘so what should we do?’ question, then in my view we do so more as citizens, voters and taxpayers than as scientists.

        If the policy question is closely centred on the area of expertise of the scientist, then the opinion of that scientist about the best policy course should ideally be more influential than someone with no specialist knowledge of the issue.

        But in an open democratic society, while some are more expert than others, an opinion is just that.

        On ‘what should we do?’ questions, scientists need to realise that theirs is not the only lens through which answers will be found.”

        One way of moving beyond this contention is to align the expert knowledge of researchers with particular levels of the decision-making structure, as I argue in the article at https://realkm.com/2021/08/17/top-down-vs-collaborative-consensus-using-the-most-appropriate-approach-for-the-decision-making-level/


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