By Alison Ritter
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.