This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
American politics has no shortage of ailments. Many do not feel like their voice matters amid the money and influence amassed by corporations and wealthy donors. Many doubt whether elected officials and bureaucrats can or even want to effectively solve problems and respond to citizens' needs. Many feel divided both physically and psychologically, and uncomfortable (if not scared) at the prospect of building new connections across lines of difference.
Strengthening American democracy requires countering these trends. New collaborations between university researchers and community leaders such as elected officials, organizers, and nonprofit directors can help. These collaborations can entail everything from informal exchanges to co-led projects.
But there's a catch. They require that people with diverse forms of knowledge and lived experience, who are often strangers, choose to engage with one another. We know that strangers often remain strangers.
That's why a science of collaboration that centers the inception question is vital: When do diverse individuals choose to work together in the first place? How can we design institutions that encourage beneficial collaborations to arise and thrive? And what outcomes can occur?
How Collaborations Between Researchers and Community Leaders Can Help
First consider the feeling of powerlessness. Individual action becomes more powerful when part of a collective. For ordinary citizens, voting and organizing are arguably the two most impactful forms of collective action, and as it turns out there is substantial research on how to increase turnout and how to build powerful civic associations. Collaborations between researchers familiar with that work and organizers and nonprofit leaders familiar with a community's context can be especially impactful.
For example, in 2019, climate organizers with a nonpartisan group in North Carolina worked with a researcher who studies organizing to figure out how to increase volunteer commitment—that is, how to transform volunteers who only attend meetings into leaders who take responsibility for organizing others. Together, they designed strategies that made sense for the local area. Once implemented, these strategies led to a 161% year-over-year increase in commitment. More concretely, dozens of newly empowered volunteers led events to raise awareness of how climate change was impacting the local community and developed relationships with local officials and business owners, all while coming to see themselves as civic leaders. This experience also fed back into the researcher's work, motivating the design of future studies.
Or consider how researchers and local elected officials can collaborate and respond to novel challenges like the coronavirus. For instance, in March 2020, one county in Upstate New York suddenly had to figure out how to provide vital services like internet and health screenings for residents who could no longer visit shuttered county offices. They turned to a researcher who knew about research on mobile vans. Together, they spoke about the benefits and costs of mobile vans in general, and then segued into a more specific conversation about what routings and services would make sense in this specific locale. Their collaboration entailed a few conversations leading up to the county's decision, and in the end the county received helpful information and the researcher learned about new implementation challenges associated with mobile vans.
In April, legislators in another Upstate New York county realized they needed honest, if biting, feedback from local mayors about their response to the pandemic. They collaborated with researchers familiar with survey methodology. County legislators supplied the goals and historical information about fraught county–city relationships, while researchers supplied evidence-based techniques for conducting interviews in delicate contexts. These interviews ultimately revealed mayors' demand for more up-to-date coronavirus information from the county and also more county-led advocacy at the state level.
To be sure, there are many situations in which elected officials' lack of information is not the main hurdle. Rather, they need an incentive to act. Yet this is another situation in which collaborations between university researchers and community leaders focused on evidence-based, context-appropriate approaches to organizing and voter mobilization could produce needed pressure.
This brings me to the third way in which collaborations between researchers and community leaders can strengthen American democracy. They entail diverse people working to develop a common interest by building new connections across lines of difference. This is a core democratic skill that withers in the absence of practice.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with.
The Science of Collaboration
The previous examples have one thing in common: a collaboration actually took place.
Yet that often does not happen. While there are many reasons why collaborations between diverse people should arise we know far less about when they actually do arise.
This is why a science of collaboration centered on inception is essential. Some studies have already revealed new insights. One thing we've learned is that credibility is important, but often not enough. By credibility, I mean that people are more likely to collaborate when they perceive each other to be trustworthy and have useful information or skills to share. Potential collaborators can signal their credibility by, for instance, identifying shared values and mentioning relevant previous experiences. One study finds that policymakers are more interested in collaborating with researchers who will share findings that are timely and locally relevant—that is, the kind that are most useful to them.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with. For instance, potential collaborators can explicitly acknowledge that they know the other person is busy, or start with a question rather than a statement to indicate being interested. One study finds that busy nonprofit leaders are more likely to collaborate with researchers who explicitly state that (a) they are interested in learning about the leaders' expertise, and (b) they will efficiently share what they know. Another study underscores that potential collaborators need to feel like they know how to interact—that is, to feel like they have a "script" for what's appropriate to say during the interaction.
We're also learning that institutions (such as matchmaking organizations) can reduce uncertainty about credibility and relationality, and also help collaborations start off on the right foot. They are a critical avenue for connecting strangers. For instance, brokers can use techniques that increase the likelihood that diverse people feel comfortable sharing what they know, raising concerns, and being responsive to others.
A science of collaboration that centers the inception question is helpful on two levels. First, it provides an evidence base for how to effectively connect diverse people to work together. Second, when applied to university researchers and community leaders, it can produce collaborations that strengthen American democracy. Moreover, these collaborations are easily implemented, especially when informal and beginning as a conversation or two (as in the mobile vans example).
Existing research on the science of collaboration has already yielded actionable insights, yet we still have much to learn. For instance, we need to better understand the latent demand. Interviews that ask a wide variety of community leaders and researchers who have not previously collaborated to talk about why doing so might be helpful would be enlightening. They could also be a useful antidote to the narrative of conflict that often permeates discussions about the role of science in American politics.
In addition, we need to learn more about the downstream consequences of these collaborations, such as whether new networks arise that include colleagues of the initial collaborators. Here, it would be helpful to study the work of brokers – how they introduce people to each other, how much they follow up, and the impact of those decisions.
Ultimately, expanding the evidence base of the science of collaboration, and then directly applying what we learn, will provide important new and actionable avenues for strengthening American democracy.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]