Science should generate knowledge that can be used to address real-life problems. That’s what taxpayers believe, it’s what many scientist endorse, and it’s the thinking underlying the development of the new Dutch Science Agenda. So how do we go about it?
Don’t rely on common sense
Many companies and organizations don’t have the patience for this. They want to get to work, preferably immediately. So they apply common sense, look up ‘five steps to success' in yet another management book, or latch onto some strategy they’ve heard enthusiastic reports of. Even if that was actually a solution to a very different problem than their own. It’s ironic: Everybody agrees that you need training to be a chemical process engineer, an accountant, or a lawyer, and if you don’t have the right training you hire a specialist. But many people think they know very well how people work, and only need to use their common sense to change unwanted behavior.
Resources are wasted in good faith attempts
Sometimes that works fine, but this is certainly not always the case. This is illustrated very clearly by a study on the effectiveness of the so-called Halt program in the Netherlands. Since 2006, this program has been used to help adolescents who have committed an offense under the influence of alcohol to get back on the rails. No expense or effort is spared. The youngsters receive training to increase their knowledge of the harmful effects of alcohol and learn to deal with peer pressure. Their parents are also involved in the process. And guess what? The study revealed that all the time, money, and effort invested in the program over the years has had no effect whatsoever. None of the goals were achieved. In fact, it turned out that the adolescents who had participated in the program subsequently actually used more alcohol than those who had also been in trouble because of drinking but had not completed the course.
Connect with researchers
There are many more examples of well-intentioned ‘common sense’ measures that prove ineffective or even counterproductive in practice. But the effects are not always investigated, or such research is carried out way too late, as in the case of Halt. Why is this? The researchers want to test their ideas. They are motivated to find out whether the knowledge that emerges from their theories and experiments actually works in practice. But it is not easy for them to gain access to the companies and organizations where they want to carry out their research. Those in charge of such organizations often think that such research is a waste of time, too complex, or too scary. Yet they do call for science they can actually apply in practice. This is only possible if companies are willing to open up and let those ‘prying’ scientists in. Allowing scientists to test their theories in real-life situations is important. It is the only way to ensure that scientific knowledge is truly applicable in practice.
This article can also be found in dutch on page 9 of Tijdschrift de Psycholoog.