"Without pracademics we won’t be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals!”
"Without pracademics we won’t be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals!”

"Without pracademics we won’t be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals!”

Willem Elbers, deputy programme director at AMID, doesn’t beat around the bush: “I really want to make the world a better place. I developed that drive at a young age. Because it’s absolutely essential. And because it gives my life meaning. So it’s fantastic that I’m now a pracademic, fostering collaboration all over the world. Wherever I work, I try to build bridges between academic insights and the real-life issues we encounter in practice.” 

Being a pracademic – more on that below – is virtually a part of Elbers’ DNA: “It’s a core part of who I am. Even as a child I had a strong sense of justice. And I was eager to see the world. When I was doing my degree in Development Studies I already felt totally in my element, working on the interface of academia and practice. I became increasingly aware that there was a gap between those two domains, in pretty much every country. And that’s a missed opportunity, for both domains. Rather than a gap, I’d like to see cross-pollination, with everyone reaping the rewards.”

Restrictive paradigm

So far, both sides have played a part in maintaining that gap. “Academics spend far less time dwelling on social challenges than you might expect. Under the current paradigm, professional academic life is really based on conducting research. It means that knowledge is pursued for its own sake. Entire generations are growing up believing that the only way to succeed in an academic career is to publish as much as possible, secure funding for research, or win prizes. It’s a form of tunnel vision, with unfortunate consequences in the real world.”

Urgent global challenges

That said, Elbers is not trying to undermine the immense value of fundamental research. But he does want to see a broader paradigm put in place, so that we can progress beyond a research perspective that is somewhat out of touch with the real world. “And there’s no time to lose! Given all the urgent global challenges we’re facing, we can’t afford to have a narrow academic perspective. It’s an obstacle to socially relevant research and knowledge valorisation, and to inclusive education.”

Poor relations

There’s plenty that needs to be done on the practical side of the gap too. In the world of international collaboration, research plays second fiddle at best. “Within organisations operating in the field, you’ll struggle to find many dedicated research positions,” says Elbers. “As a rule, it’s something staff members do on the side. Relationships with the academic domain, if there are any, tend to be unstable and short-term. No wonder, because within civil society there’s a strong focus on achieving management goals and on accountability. Plus, there’s the high workload. Academic insights and evidence-based practice are the poor relations.”

Huge loss

That too is a huge loss. The fact is that academic research can be invaluable in practical settings. It can shed light on complex problems, and help us measure progress, or reversals. It can help us come up with effective, innovative solutions. And of course, it can be used to train people to tackle problems, based on the best available knowledge and competencies.”

Free online lunch lecture

On 8 June, the Radboud Centre for Social Sciences (RCSW) is hosting a free online lunch lecture by Willem Elbers as part of Lifelong Development Week. Find out more and/or register via the Radboud Centre for Social Sciences website.

Bridge builders

The logical follow-up questions is: how do we bridge the gap? That’s where the pracademics come in, says Elbers. Their skill set makes them perfectly equipped for this: “Pracademics straddle both research and practice. Their practical work draws on their academic experience, and vice versa. This makes them uniquely capable of building bridges. They’re skilled at developing contacts and exchanges, bringing together different cultures and interests, and building empathy and trust. They are in effect brokers of knowledge and experience, able to valorise knowledge and break down barriers to collaboration.”

Drivers of exchange

It means that pracademics are the drivers of close and constant exchange between science and practice. “To come up with effective solutions, you have to start by scrutinising the problem,” says Elbers. “So, from AMID’s perspective, that means gaining a better insight into the complexity of what causes exclusion, poverty and the other problems that the SDGs want to eliminate. How do you get a better view of those problems and capture them in data and models? And what are the best proven strategies for change and improvement? Pracademics also know who the relevant actors are and have access to networks, which is important if you want to create momentum. As drivers of change they also pave the way for new insights, innovative approaches, and education, such as our AMID programmes.”

Key role

The scale of the global challenges we face means we urgently need more pracademics, Elbers insists. “Radboud University’s emphasis on sustainability is a good step towards more socially relevant research. I’m also pleased with the recent recognition and appreciation of the social contribution of academics. Hopefully this will help develop the perception of pracademia as a fully fledged and appealing education and career path, and do justice to the key role that pracademics play.”

Catching up

Organisations in the field need to catch up too. “Let staff members participate in research teams and in consortiums with universities. And let them contribute to academic forums, conferences and journals. Create opportunities for sabbaticals in academic settings. These should unquestionably be considered valuable aspects of their work. This is something that we at AMID want to contribute to. The AMID Masterclasses, for example, have been specially developed for professionals who want an opportunity to step out of their day-to-day routine and immerse themselves in the latest academic insights into development cooperation.”

Change from within and below

Elbers is also in charge of AMID Community Building, an innovative programme that helps businesses align their operations with the SDGs. The programme is based on the same principles successfully used by social movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter, which is that change happens from within and below. For example, Elbers and his team are currently working with the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to set up an SDG community. As a pracademic, that’s exactly what he wants to see happening. “The SDGs are not something you pursue on the side. Of course, it’s great if you have a handful of enthusiastic people on your staff who will perhaps organise projects to push for wheelchair access in buildings, or to separate recyclable waste, or introduce gender-neutral toilets. But similarly to social movements, you only start making a real difference when there’s a proper focus, critical mass and a target. And thanks to the SDG framework, we have a neat set of targets right there.”

Greater social impact

“What we seek to achieve in J&J is to unite intrinsically motivated employees from different disciplines to create a tightly knit, SDG community with the capacity to effect change,” says Elbers. “It’s about sharing experiences, insights and expertise, and pooling everyone’s powers of thought and action around a single, integrated agenda and with a shared, inspirational goal: greater social impact around those 17 SDGs.”

Results already evident

And what has come out of this at J&J? “The newly established community has initiated a large-scale SDG awareness raising campaign targeting all staff and management,” says Elbers. “It’s also creating an inventory of existing sustainability initiatives in the company, and seeing whether the SDG banner can give them greater momentum. That could be through a shared website, a big event, or something else. Thirdly, the community at J&J is working to embed the SDGs in operational management and decision-making processes, from departmental plans to annual appraisal interviews. Quite an energetic start, I’d say!”

This article appeared earlier on the website of Radboud Centre for Social Sciences

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