How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Your Secret War

Think of a dozen researcher thought leaders — researchers who are changing public conversations through their ideas, arguments and solutions. Write their names down. How many are female? How many are minority? Why are those numbers so low? Now try to name a dozen female and minority researcher thought leaders, and ask your colleagues to do the same. Can you and they do it quickly? Why not?

Look at the content featured on the homepages of a dozen top think tanks. How many of those pieces of content would also be good enough to be published by a leading news or opinion site? How many of just the analysis pieces? Then check back on those think tank sites for four weeks running. Does that media-worthy percentage ever reach double digits? Why not?

Look at the opinion sections of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the LA Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vox, Wired, USA Today. How many of their pieces are written by journalists, editors, book authors or others versus researchers, scientists and actual subject matter experts? Why is that? How many of those “researchers, scientists and other subject matter experts” aren’t law professors? Why is that?

Look at the list of metrics that go into any altmetric index. Would a PR professional use any of them to measure impact for their clients? Any of them? Do you even know?

I have an ever-growing list of research projects like this, a list that it’s become increasingly obvious I need to hire a research assistant to accomplish.

But it’s also increasingly obvious to me that researcher thought leadership — despite what pundits say about the decline of public intellectualism — is in trouble. In trouble because it’s not diverse. Because it’s not supported by researchers’ home institutions. Because its role is being increasingly usurped by journalists. And because it doesn’t know how to measure and improve its own impact.

This is our secret war — the war we’re losing as researchers, as scientists, as research and science communicators, every day.

The solutions aren’t simple or easy. They involve sustained mentorship; developing inclusive, strategic thought leadership programs integrated into the business of our institutions and organizations; developing owned audiences for our own expertise-based ideas and solutions instead of relying on the media for handouts; and metrics that help us improve our impact and that are convincing to any skeptical funder.

The first step, however, is realizing that you’re in a fight.