How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

How Research Thought Leaders Work

We all have pressing problems.

We’d all love persuasive solutions to those problems.

And many of us would love research-based experts to develop those solutions, especially experts we trust.

Connecting these elements — us, our problems, solutions to those problems developed by experts we trust — is the real work of what we still for some reason call “research communications.” That work is challenging enough when all the dots line up tightly. When they don’t — when the dots are far, far apart — it’s next to impossible.

One big issue: Not enough researchers provide the starter elements for this recipe — identifying the problem; designing and executing research that yields solution options; identifying other useful findings and ideas out of the research; and communicating those crisply.

To see the beginnings of how it might be done well, look at this new blog post by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.

Lusk is writing about his forthcoming working paper called “A Basket-Based Choice Experiment.”

The problem the paper addresses: We still don’t understand well why people make the food choices they do.

Too much research into this area, Lusk says, relies on “choice experiments” that don’t mimic realistic shopping scenarios — they only ask subjects to choose one item out of a set of options.

But that’s not how many people shop. They more often think in terms of meals, not individual choices.

The solution: Construct a study that allows them to make more realistic meal selections on a budget, and then record how that context might influence how they choose individual food items.

In so doing, Lusk and his coauthor Vincenzina Caputo may have discovered that the whole approach of encouraging people to buy more of a kind of healthy food (for example, fruits and vegetables) doesn’t work well. That’s because (his words) “their preference for one produce may depend on what they’ve already put in their shopping basket”:

For example, given that someone chooses ground beef, the next most common items in the basket are salad/lettuce, potatoes, and then tomatoes. Given that someone has picked ground beef, there is more than a 50% chance each of these vegetables/vegetables also appears in the basket. These sorts of results illustrate the challenge of suggesting people to just increase fruit or vegetable consumption because their values for these items increase when accompanied with meat. For example, one of our model specifications suggests that the value of lettuce/salad increases by more than $4 if it is also accompanied with ground beef.

We value a head of lettuce more when we’ve already chosen chicken breasts, because that’s how we think about food. (Well, not me: I prefer Beyond Burgers.)

Here we have a research problem, a solution to the problem, and a finding that introduces an idea — the beginnings of a novel solution to a larger problem, which is getting people to eat more fruit and vegetables.

It’s a snapshot of a research thought leadership ecosystem — thinking in problems, doing research designed to provide solutions to those problems, and refining one’s instinct for seeing findings out of the research that become ideas and potential solutions you can apply to even larger problems.

And doing that habitually, over books and other media, over a career. And building an organization of researchers who do the same.