For the past year, I became fixated on the divide between academia and practice. It stole my attention and commanded one too many conversations.
When I was a student at university, I knew the divide existed but was unaware of its significance and just accepted academia and industry as two separate, disconnected worlds.
I then started a job at a humanitarian aid NGO and observed what this divide meant in practice. At my NGO, we waxed lyrical on the importance of making more evidence-backed decisions to improve outcomes. But using evidence was defined as learning from our former mistakes, rather than trying to avoid them in the first place.
We didn’t have access to evidence to do it any differently. But I had forgotten that we did. There is a vast resource of rigorously produced knowledge available. With its very purpose being to inform and warn international affairs and development professionals on how best to serve different communities.
A resource otherwise known as academic knowledge.
The impact of academia
The very purpose of academic research is to develop knowledge that can help improve the welfare of communities and the livelihoods of others.
In the UK, two-hundred million pounds is invested on ESRC funded research each year. So it is fair to conclude that we understand the role of academic research for advancing society.
Yet, despite the copious efforts of this country to invest in and produce research, the fact remained – at my NGO, we had no access.
At first, I thought it might just be us. But then I started the conversation and spoke with 50 other organisations and discovered – they didn’t have access either.
I started to research and was struck by an Indiana University statistic. This research concluded that 50% of all academic papers were “never read by anyone other than their authors, referees and journal editors”, and 90% supposedly never cited.
While I remained hopeful this was an extreme (and untrue) finding, it posed two questions. First, is academic research even read by those who can put it into action? And second, how much is academic research worth if it is never used?
Of course, I did not hesitate to place all blame with the traditional academic publishers, happily framing them as tyrannical capitalists. But with the rise of open-source publications, I was too hasty and it turns out the publishers are not to blame.
Why is academic research not read?
I started to explore the reasons a little more objectively and asked over 50 leaders from different organisations across the international affairs and development sector, and I found out the true barrier: time.
Academic research is presented in lengthy and complex papers that take a long, long time to digest. In fact, we asked over 1000 professionals how much time it takes to read a 30 page academic paper. And their answer? Two Hours. This is a huge time investment for the busy professional.
And so here we have it – the birth of Acume. A tech startup to bridge the gap by making academic research accessible. We define accessible as academic research that’s fast to find, quick to read, and then easy to use in practice and policy.
The plan is to make use of innovative AI to help practitioners and policymakers connect to the evidence they need to strengthen their decisions in the field. Underpinning our algorithms is our core belief – diversity of perspective.
We believe that for the international affairs and development sector to innovate, they do not just need evidence, but they need diverse evidence. This means when you are designing a WASH programme in Zambia, you need to access evidence from scholars with different backgrounds. This includes local Zambian scholars who know the context as well as scholars from outside the country. Our algorithms will uphold diversity of perspective in every search query.
Sounds too good to be true? It might be…
Until our algorithms become a reality, our work is manual. We must work very closely with academics and practitioners to translate academic research into action and understand how to best serve both sides. This is a slow (but rewarding) process.
And then we had an idea. What if we invite the SOAS community to help us? They could help us know about inspiring academics, conduct incredible interviews, and help practitioners and policymakers get the insights they need.
As such, we will be visiting the SOAS campus this Thursday (14th October 2021). We will base ourselves at the SOAS student union from 11am to 4pm. Come and find us. We are there to meet you, start interesting conversations, and share what it means to join us on our mission as an Acume Ambassador.
Alternatively, if you are interested in becoming an Acume Ambassador but can’t make Thursday, then sign up at www.acume.org/students and we’ll be in touch to schedule a call. And remember to sign up before the 25th October!
Yasmine Finbow is a founder and director of Acume. Acume is an ambitious tech start-up trying to bridge the gap between academia and practice. She will be studying a PhD in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS from 2022, researching private military contractors and their role in remote warfare.