Strengthening the Final Stage of the Research Cycle: Creating Usable Knowledge
You might be familiar with usability studies carried out by computer companies Computer designers try not to go off into a corner and design a computer (or a piece of software) all by themselves. Instead they involve end users in testing various features of the computer design. Computer designers would probably not call what they do being a part of a research partnership but their approach does share common elements with what we have been calling research partnerships. The design is done in collaboration. They design for usable knowledge. Consider, below, some other examples that point to the increasing value being placed on usable knowledge.
The intriguing phrase “best practices” is now being used with increasing frequency in community university partnerships. The phrase “best practices,” like “science-based” interventions (another phrase increasingly occurring in the literature) reflects an innovation that is now taking place in how research is being carried out. When there is an emphasis on best practices, the focus is placed on how research can be useful, on how interventions can emerge out of research. The US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences uses yet another phrase, that of “translational research,” to focus our attention on the importance of doing research in a way that leads directly to action and policy. The focus is on usable knowledge.
The Research Cycle
What does all of this have to do with strengthening the final stage of the research cycle? In partnerships people are talking about the importance of thinking about all of the stages of research together! The final stage--disseminating and using research--depends on a strong working research partnership being in place. Partnerships are finding that research is better designed if the end users are involved throughout the research. For example, if those who are going to carry out healthy homes interventions are involved in the design of research aimed at understanding contaminants in the home, then the contaminant research is likely to be more useful. Fewer steps may be needed to go from the basic research to the application of that research.
Research that Fits the Community
How do partnerships end up with usable knowledge? In the area of substance abuse prevention, the US federal agency CSAP (Center for Substance Abuse Prevention) has gathered together a vast body of research on what works to prevent substance abuse. A number of different models have been found to be equally successful in preventing substance abuse. The next step that CSAP has taken is to provide funding to community partnerships to look through the different models, learn about them, and then decide which of the various models has greatest applicability to their own community. Each community partnership is encouraged to consider their own situation in applying the research.
This CSAP approach is an intriguing one and represents an interesting innovation. The approach says that one of the important roles that community partners play is in evaluating the applicability of research to a particular set of circumstances. This is one example of how findings might be made usable.
Making Findings Usable
Partnerships are also looking other strategies for taking the results from studies and disseminating them in useful ways. Consider first some ways that might not work (and what we can learn from these). Consider the ways of making the dangers of mercury widely known. In other weeks, we have talked about mercury contamination of fish and my experience with researchers seeing the danger of mercury poisoning from eating fish as so serious that the researchers recommend that people be advice to stop eating freshwater fish. What is the problem with this as a dissemination strategy? Why might this not work? This strategy is certainly used—it was used on radio stations around the US this fall. The problem with advice giving—which is what this represents—is that it is too overarching and all encompassing. It doesn’t provide alternatives. So, what do we do?
In one of our projects in Massachusetts we focused on fishing and understanding family traditions around fishing. The idea was to learn enough that we could figure out how as a partnership to disseminate findings about fish and mercury. We went to Buddhist temples and shared stories about family traditions of fishing (for example I shared stories about my farmer grandparents Orville and Velma and the fishing for bullheads they used to do in Iowa in their farm ponds) and Cambodian and Laotian shared stories of fishing in the Mekong and the Merrimack. We also shared fishing recipes. The result was that we all learned more about the roles of fishing and eating fish in different cultures and could then figure out how to talk about mercury contamination in ways that focused attention on the problem without assuming that people would change all of their traditions and entirely eliminate fish from their diet. Dora Tovar, a doctoral student working with us, put together fishing recipes from different cultures and then used this as a way to encourage people to also think about fish and mercury in a nuanced way. Her advice: Don’t lose the complexity, either of the message or of the culture!
In Ohio, a group developed a heart attack prevention program for Asian families, many of whom do not speak English. The partnership that developed the program wanted to evaluate its effectiveness but traditional paper and pencil strategies didn’t work. The families were very uncomfortable with this part of the research procedure. So, the researchers developed this great board game that really fit with the culture of the participants and that provided opportunities for people to show what they had learned in different areas.
In Massachusetts, we used the concept of a teen envirocamp as a way to assist teens in disseminating research (such as on healthy homes) to their community. The teens developed a cable television show, puppet shows, rap songs, and other strategies as ways to share findings with families in their community. In each case, the teens from our River Ambassadors Program focused on working with researchers to learn about the research, then thought about the groups they wanted to involve in using the research, and then structured the presentations so that they would capture the audience’s interest and would be “sticky.” Sticky messages are ones that people don’t forgot.
In Massachusetts we found that of all environmental issues in our community, purity of water tended to be the important gateway issue. This was the issue that everyone cared about. So as a partnership we thought about whether there might be ways to attend to the importance of this issue, its salience in various cultures, and share information about research. The Southeast Asian Water Festival, attended by thousands of people, has become one way of doing this. The Festival enabled the partnership to highlight research and show that cultural traditions are in “the driver’s seat.”
What can we conclude from these simple examples? They are intended to suggest that there is lots of important work yet to be done in thinking about how we bring research to application, how we disseminate findings. Journal articles serve many useful purposes, but usable knowledge has to go beyond written, scholarly words. The above are examples to help us start to think about what we as individuals and members of partnerships can contribute to the final stage of research, to the stage of having the research results become usable. The key is not just to finish the research but translate the research into usable community currency. Many challenges remain.