Increasing the Social Impact of Our Research by “Putting Science to Work”

by C. Cybele Raver 

As social scientists, we’ve been trained to focus on the academic impact of our work: that is, how much does our work change the way that other scientists fundamentally define or approach a scholarly problem? How much does our work break open new ground? This standard is clearly articulated at every step along the path to tenure. Earlier in my career, I was asked during in a fellowship interview whether I hoped to change the field or change the world: I answered that my goal was to “change the field, first,” hoping to take on the challenge of changing the world, afterwards–my answer, though tepid in its commitment to social change, was clearly aligned with the review panel’s perspective: I was awarded the prestigious fellowship.

Now tenured, I can push myself and my work harder to maximize social impact. One example is through our partnership with agencies and organizations at the city and state level. This week, I worked with key administrators at a fantastic non-profit organization, the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, to restructure their intake interview for families. We focused on inserting a few, valuable questions into one simple form that would help agency personnel to better understand the financial strains that families face. This included questions about not having enough money to make ends meet, families experiences of having to “double up” in their rental housing, and not being able to pay bills on time. We also inserted a few items to capture parents’ experiences of conflict and stress within the household.  These items will help the Lenox Hill staff to track whether and how their services may substantially alleviate the psychological burdens as well as material hardships faced by the families that use their legal advocacy, child care, Head Start, and after school programs. Later in the week, Clancy and I traveled to Baltimore to serve as technical advisors to Maryland and Ohio efforts to assess children’s school readiness at kindergarten entry. Our consultation to that group has led to the inclusion of behaviorally anchored teacher report of children’s self-regulation, including their attention and persistence, as part of state standards. In both cases, the impact on our scholarship may be low, but the potential for making a real difference in the world is within reach. 

What did this involve on my part? It involved setting aside the pressure to maximize academic impact and to really listen to the needs and institutional constraints faced by our policy and practitioner partners. It involved allocating time that I would have otherwise been devoted to statistical analyses or manuscript writing, to provide consultation and support to deeply dedicated colleagues so that they could better help children and families. This opportunity to deploy my skills as a social scientist to to strengthen “front line” services for families facing poverty and income inequality has been the best part of my job.