From Theory to Practice

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The second internal seminar in Athens 2015—and indeed, probably the most pertinent one, as far as the methodological thrust of the IASR—was concerned with the theme of Translating research findings into practice/public policy (chaired by Pirjo Nikander). Since I wasn’t myself responsible for organizing the seminar, I thought I might be in a position to jot down a few thoughts on the themes we spoke about. In particular, I’ll try to make sense of the different ways in which translations from research findings to publicly shared practices—hence, from theory to practice—can be carried out, from a philosophical, multidisciplinary perspective.

I start with a platitude: I assume we the researchers are doing science. Science, as a matter of principle, ought not to be directly converted into public policy, unless it’s a very specific species of science we are doing. Surely, one can bring the results of research to a larger audience, but that’s not to make them into public policy. And if, on the other hand, we wish to have our research contribute to doing public policy, I’d say the logic of translating from theory to practice is different.

During the conversation, taking my departure from thoughts such as those just mentioned, I suggested some distinctions that might be drawn respecting the different ways in which scientific research can be translated into something practical. We can think, to begin with, of at least the following three different cases:

  1. a tough science converted to technological usage (e.g. quantum physics)
  2. a reasonably translatable science brought to a larger audience (e.g. philosophy)
  3. research in public policy / social sciences converted to public policy

Number 3, of course, is the most explicit example of translating research findings into public praxis, whereas numbers 1 and 2 represent different examples. In the discussion, a further species of translation work turned up, namely, political participation at the grassroots level—rooted in research—that may make direct practical interventions.

Inspired by the first list, Risto Heiskala, the present director of the IASR offered an alternative list. He told us he’s been thinking of three different species of activity carried out in scientific research. These three activities—as far as my notes do justice to the view—are as follows: 1) discovery (both in the natural and in the human sciences), i.e. coming up with an idea that’s actually a result; 2) enlightenment, which usually means popularization in natural science and some kind of creation and cherishing of culture in the humanities; and 3) field of technology, i.e. inventing gadgets or new social technologies—and according to Risto, number 3 is what public-policy people customarily require.

Intriguingly, Risto’s list breaks down various conventional distinctions, say, between the human and information sciences, in that it sees the social sciences involved in the business of producing technologies as well. It goes without saying that various further questions arise from both lists. Risto’s item number 3 runs the risk of clouding the way in which technologies in the humanities and/or social science involve moral values & norms in ways that they perhaps do not in the natural sciences. (This is not to say, however, that research in the natural sciences would be normatively neutral.)

The discussion, all in all, was rich and broached the themes from various different angles. Different examples of successful translations from theory to practice involved, e.g., urban planning, nature preservation projects, management education and research on child welfare. Much could be said about all of them, but I’ll wait for other people to touch on other themes later!