How researchers get heard
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The Researcher’s Real Complexity Problem

Everyone tells scientists and researchers to write their papers in clear language.

I think that’s great. But it solves for the wrong complexity problem.

The law professor and author Tim Wu wrote a compelling opinion piece for The New York Times last week, headlined “The Democrats’ Complexity Problem.”

Subhead: “Too often, progressive policies are difficult for Americans to understand, use and benefit from.”

Try this thought experiment. Read the piece and swap in:

  • “scientists” or “researchers” for “Democrats” and “progressives”; and
  • “science” and “science-based solutions” for “government,” “policies” and “progressive policies.”

For instance:

“In recent decades, scientists have not prioritized making science-based solutions easy for most Americans to understand, use and benefit from. Fixing this problem will mean overcoming a streak of perfectionism and a certain intellectual defensiveness, but it must be done if scientists are to make science-based solutions popular again.”


“Researchers are right to consider expertise essential to good research. But researchers are rarely good at interface design, for we have a bad habit of assuming that people have unlimited time and attention and that to respect them means offering complete transparency and a multiplicity of choices. Real respect for the public involves appreciating what the public actually wants and needs. The reality is that most Americans are short on time and attention and already swamped by millions of daily tasks and decisions. They would prefer that research solve problems for them — not create more work for them.”

and best of all

“For what the public wants from science is help with complexity, not exposure to it. This generation of scientists, to achieve lasting success, must accept that simplicity and popularity are not a dumbing-down of science, but rather the unavoidable requirement for its success.”

Works for me. And here’s the obvious thing I think it reveals:

What both decision makers and the public want is not easy-to-understand science or research, but easy-to-understand next steps from your science or research.

They don’t want to read your paper. They want to understand what your paper means for them.

Today, that’s your job, too.

And that’s where thought leadership comes in.