How researchers get heard
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Asking the Bigger Questions, Part Deux

Here’s another email in response to my column last week on “Bill Gates & Asking Bigger Questions,” talking about a researcher the correspondent knows. I’m publishing it here, anonymized, with permission:

Something X – and he is a great research scientist – does is he challenges paradigms. I think it is another interesting take on this. Basically – he is a disrupter – he probably doesn’t even realize that. But he goes into systems and looks around and doesn’t take what is known about this system for granted…he actively questions it and looks for other explanations to explain the story of the place. It is another way to be a thought leader…it can be very controversial – but also very exciting when you realize the framing was all wrong and you have discovered something totally new about a system in which people have been studying for decades. So I think another type of bigger question is…IS THIS RIGHT? DO WE REALLY UNDERSTAND WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE? He gets resistance for this, especially when he’s overturning dogma — it drives people crazy, but he has the data to back up his stance.

Asking “is this right? do we really understand?” is where the arc of the great research question and the great thought leadership question meet.

But in thought leadership, you can’t just get away with asking a great question and clearing away the rot. You have to have a solution. Suggested solutions are often the weakest part of a research paper. In a thought piece, the prescription must be as strong as the diagnosis.

This isn’t just about the decision-maker cliche “don’t bring me problems bring me solutions.” Read this Solution Set feature on a University of Maryland student journalism project using heat sensors in Baltimore to report on the impacts of climate change in that city.

Lots of people in Baltimore can’t afford AC, and so the reporters found indoor residential wet bulb temperatures in poor Baltimore neighborhoods reaching up to 119 degrees in the summer. As Brianna Baker reports, when the journalists shared their findings with residents and connected the heat to climate change, “it only worsened residents’ pessimism” about ever solving the problem — even though solutions such as extensive tree planting in neighborhoods with sparse canopy coverage could potentially mitigate the impacts of the heat. (Covering climate change through a lens on local impacts also made people “more likely to be motivated to pursue those options,” Baker reports.

Knocking it down without building something up in its place works in science. It doesn’t work for the rest of us.

Takeaway: remember the 20/80 rule. Shoot for spending 20 percent of your time on the problem; 80 percent on the solution. Most researchers are trained to do the opposite. It’s one of the hardest habits for them to overcome — and yet another way asking a great research question doesn’t prepare you for generating great thought pieces.