A Critical Opportunity for Philanthropy
A DISCUSSION OFA Global Movement for Engaged Research
In “A Global Movement for Engaged Research” (Issues, Spring 2022), Angela Bednarek and Vivian Tseng capture well philanthropy’s need to prioritize building the evidence base, infrastructure, and incentives for engaged research—to, in their words, “spur a new vision of science … in direct collaboration with the rest of society.” The challenges we face span areas of expertise in science and society and are laden with complexities, uncertainties, values, and high stakes for all. Science is a crucial part of solution building, but not a sole solution.
One key area that the authors emphasize is the need to support boundary spanners holistically, reinventing systems and structures to appropriately value and encourage their diverse expertise and efforts, their impact in practice, and the new career paths they are forging. We have ample evidence from science communication, participatory research, and other bodies of engaged research that people who can traverse diverse communities and fields of practice are essential in communication and relationship-building.
Yet as the authors outline, there are many reasons why society lacks the boundary spanners needed. These barriers often reinforce each other and are rooted in the fact that boundary spanners challenge the status quo. Cultural and material incentives discourage interdisciplinary and engaged research in the sciences. To create networks of support and opportunities, there often is a need to develop new language and change institutional perspectives—often while battling the effects of systemic racism and other structural inequities, as Bednarek and Tseng highlight.
We are losing vital people, capability, and energy.
Researchers focused on science, technology, communication, and their relationship to democracy and inequality have long demonstrated that without boundary spanners, scientific consensus doesn’t translate into actionable or complete answers to the civic question, in the political philosopher Peter Levine’s phrasing, “What should we do?” We are now in a powerful moment ripe for experimentation around the myriad ways to answer such questions and create an active culture of civic science—engaging boundary-spanning research to help solve the most pressing and persistent societal problems.
As Bednarek and Tseng demonstrate, using as examples the Transforming Evidence Funders Network and the Transforming Evidence Network, philanthropy has a critical opportunity to catalyze and cocreate this cultural shift in partnership with communities, not only through providing monetary resources but by serving as connectors and civic investors seeking returns in public goods. We celebrate early adopters and advocates of the emerging movement for engaged research and hope more readers are inspired and called to action.
Across many connected efforts, we acknowledge that it will take long-term commitments to see a fundamental shift toward engaged research take root—one that can generate compounding solutions to address shared challenges. Being in action to support boundary spanners, the next generation of leaders working to bridge civic and science spaces, is at the core of the Civic Science Fellows Program, a still-growing collaboration that was launched in 2020 and now engages partners across philanthropy, academia, media, policy, and engaged research (including the Rita Allen Foundation and some Issues contributors). These early-career Civic Science Fellows and partners have an essential role in helping achieve these long-term changes.
The clear case for engaged research and a culture of civic science has been made. This is the moment to take up the call to action together.
Elizabeth Good Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer
Rita Allen Foundation