Published: July 20, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2018-12


Mark Western

Non-Technical Summary:

For at least 40 years social and behavioral scientists have argued that their disciplines need to do more to help solve real world practical problems. But doing this has proved difficult. In this Essay, I describe three success stories where social and behavioral sciences have contributed important solutions and draw out evidence-based lessons for policy-makers, practitioners, university researchers and others who want to promote social and behavioral science informed actionable solutions to real world problems.

Researchers and policy makers are sometimes described as operating in ‘two communities’ or ‘parallel universes’ with different objectives, institutional logics, cultures, incentives and timeframes. However, these communities are not completely separate; within them policy-makers and researchers interact but often in comparatively unstructured ways. The same is true of university researchers and businesses, not-for-profits and civil society associations. For social and behavioral science contributions to policy, practice and other social and economic outcomes to be more than accidental, purposeful linkages across organisations and sectors need to be created. The mature form of such a linkage is an effective partnership between researchers and others, oriented to solving a practical problem, and characterised by a durable relationship between organisations, with common, synergistic and mutually beneficial objectives and outcomes.

Constructing scientific objectives as problems needing solutions or challenges to be overcome and embedding research within appropriate institutions and frameworks has driven innovation in computing, jet propulsion, lasers, satellites, cell phones, the Internet, GPS, digital imaging, nuclear and solar power and sequencing the human genome. Social and behavioral science based on solving real world problems and partnering deeply within and outside universities has substantial promise for improving policy and practice, enhancing relevance and impact and generating innovative breakthrough research.


July 19, 2018