How You Can Move Research Forward (And Why You Should Want To)

Owen RobertsResearch is supposed to give decision makers information from which they can make sound policy.

Without research-based information, what evidence would decisions be based on? Hearsay? Emotions? Gut feel?

Some intuition must be part of any decision, sure, but at the core, at least when it comes to public policy, there must be something more concrete to it.

Ontario environment minister Glen Murray says so. Recently, at the Ontario Climate Consortium research symposium, he was quoted saying “There has never been a time when science has been more important to the public policy agenda.”

Interesting.

For a newsperson, research is as exciting as politics. Whether research is at the results stage or just getting off the ground, something is always happening in a research project.

And when something happens — hopefully, something interesting — that’s news.

That’s why research lends itself so well to news coverage. It’s important that people have an opportunity to receive research news in an understandable way, to promote openness and understanding.

After all, they have a stake in it, whether through funding from taxpayers’ dollars, or by the fact that it’s happening in their back yards. Or perhaps they’re actually involved in it.

A great deal of Canadian research, agricultural and otherwise, starts at universities. Researchers conduct studies near and far, involving communities of people either as participants, or as the drivers of research.

Sometimes researchers turn to their own communities to draw participants for their studies. For example, the Guelph Family Health Study, an unprecedented 20-year program just underway, involves Guelph families who have stepped up to take part in an extensive study of food, nutrition and health.

Researchers’ findings will have implications right across Canada, and beyond, as a model for better health. No question, better food choices will be part of it. The farm community, which grows the food these study participants consume, should pay attention as this study develops.

The nature of the community being studied is a key factor in the design and implementation of a good research project. At the University of Guelph, for example, proposals for every research study involving humans are reviewed by the university’s research ethics boards, using guidelines which are accepted and used at all of the major research institutions across Canada.

I doubt if many people know that.

At Guelph, the boards meet monthly to review proposals, suggesting ways risk to the humans and the communities involved in the research can be minimized, and the benefits of research maximized.

Each board has 10 to 12 members, including a legal expert, an ethics expert, experts in the field of study, and – this is key – members from the community.

The community members are there to bring the needs and rights of the community, and of the individual research participants, to the discussion.

Why’s that?

Well, there’s an old saying, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” And it applies to research, too.

Researchers may indeed be able to carry out a study that is perfectly legal and ethical from their perspective, and that can add knowledge to the discipline.

But there may be some particular community sensitivities that need to be taken into account, to ensure that the rights of the individual and the community are respected during the research process.

It’s this so-called sober second thought from outside of the university that the community member can help contribute. It’s the place where precaution can be discussed at a non-political level, before studies advance. Much better to have those discussions early in the game, than when the products of research become available and a vocal minority try to squash them based on some perceived threat.

The composition of the ethics boards, and the reviews they do, foster involvement of the community before and during the research project. These boards promote input from the communities contributing to the research process.

This research review process comes to mind when I hear activists say research occurs in a vacuum and people don’t have a say in it, or hear about it until it’s over.

That’s simply not true. Media report on research all the time at various stages of its development. And as for having a say in it, there are opportunities to voice opinions through community members on research ethics boards, before the studies even start.

These are volunteer positions and ethics boards routinely have openings for community members. What a great opportunity to influence research and help your community in a meaningful way.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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