Not an agnostic profession: The case for activism in research

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Signal finders exist in every facet of our lives, from fashion to finance to agriculture. Though they are more commonly known as researchers, they are always on the frontlines of data, working to forecast the future of their respective fields.

What’s often overlooked by outsiders, and even by some researchers themselves, is that researchers personally wield the power to amplify the voices that ought to drive the decision-making of their company and broader industry leaders.

It’s a vital function of the researcher’s role both from a business and societal perspective, and neither perspective can be agnostic of the other. This feeds into another misperception about the research profession, which is that it ought to be impartial and simply serve to relay information without a particular interpretation.

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This idea is incredibly damaging, especially when it seeps into researchers’ mindsets and affects their ability to drive actionable insights for their stakeholders. This overly-neutral approach often leads to weak direction and potentially detrimental inaction in industries like tech, where ethics and purpose are not automatically baked into a product’s engineering.

Without a values-based “activist” mentality from a research team, products and company strategy can unintentionally perpetuate harm.

Behind the metrics

It’s important to also point out the distinctions within research, specifically that between qualitative (human-based) and quantitative (numbers-based). Both require intense levels of critical thinking to better process the meaning behind the data, but the more individualized and human-centric nature of qualitative research is especially demanding of thoughtful translation and awareness of bias.

That said, activism in research does not mean that insights should be paired with endorsements for presidential candidates. It means that a researcher’s loyalty first rests with the human race (then their employer, client and/or funder).

Behind every metric is a set of underlying racial, gendered and socioeconomic factors that affect the way people’s opinions and behaviors are measured. While this can be considered political to some, simply existing is itself a political act for equity-seeking groups and individuals worldwide.

Activism in research is about understanding how the world interacts with different people and how data reflects these interactions in unique ways. This, in turn, gives researchers the power and privilege of being at the frontline of said data to make a positive and inclusive impact on consumers.

While many forward-thinking companies and research firms are already operating within this framework, how can an activist’s mindset be instilled elsewhere?

No need to overthink it; the best approach is often to infuse creativity into information sharing. After all, the main objective is to push researchers to think critically, form a stance on the data they’re analyzing, and share it in a way that’s understandable and compelling for decision-makers.

On the information side, it’s critical for researchers to have a good understanding of the systems of oppression that exist in society (e.g., sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.). These systems present themselves through data fairly often, and it’s up to researchers to identify how and where they may be influencing studies so that their clients or bosses don’t inadvertently perpetuate harm.

The role of research in social responsibility and business success

And when a recent Wellcome study states that 75% of researchers feel that creativity is stifled in their current culture, it’s clear that the storytelling element of the job is underutilized.

With more proactive education and encouragement of personal expression, these conversations are likely to be welcomed with open arms. Stakeholders and executive suites, whether they realize it or not, are looking to researchers to guide them with the insights they generate.

This is an opportunity to reduce their “cognitive load” (a.k.a. the amount of working memory a brain is using) and let them focus on the broader well-being of the business. While all branches of a business should be actively mindful when it comes to ethics in their actions, the research team can take on the identification of ongoing and future problems through data and allow their perspective to push these decision-makers to ideal resolutions — both from a socially responsible perspective and from a business success standpoint.

Some analytics professionals may still be apprehensive, though, like one graduate student that I met with a while ago. In our meeting, I began to walk through the concept of identifying the effects of white supremacy in consumer data, and she didn’t feel comfortable broaching the topic.

I didn’t push the subject much further, but made sure to emphasize that even as a non-activist, a researcher needs to understand the systems of how people respond to certain environments and certain lines of questioning (which in turn affect the data).

It’s also important to understand how we, as researchers, present ourselves, as this can affect how study participants react and respond to us. Sure enough, she came to understand this on her own journey and would let me know a few months later.

Reducing risk of bias

The goal of research is, at the end of the day, to recommend informed action. For business leaders, this can have a significant impact on the design and marketing of their products or services, internal company policies and overall communications practices, providing ways to include and engage with new audiences.

It may not always be an easy conversation, but that is what makes researchers so important: the ability to provide data-backed recommendations that de-risk important decisions while driving meaningful organizational and societal change.

If that sentiment isn’t convincing enough in a vacuum, recent research from BARC makes a strong financial case, finding that companies efficiently utilizing their data drive an 8% rise in profitability on average while also reducing costs by 10%.

The benefits are undeniable from any angle. I saw it firsthand in a previous role consulting for a beauty brand. We were working on a tool to help forecast how much product to send to stores in advance. By only looking at quantitative data, we risked building a racist algorithm that, in certain retail locations, recommended not stocking darker foundation shades at all — as opposed to the full range of shades available by the brand. This would have sent a message to shoppers about who does and doesn’t belong in that store.

Doing the qualitative research and looking at this from an activist lens enabled us to identify and build safeguards to prevent our solution from inadvertently making racist recommendations. Because technology can’t actively embed inclusive values in its own functions, it’s up to humans to take an active role in making that happen for situations like this.

Doing the right thing is financially beneficial and, more importantly, makes employees proud of their work and their employer’s purpose. It helps executives reinforce their company’s values and build genuinely earned goodwill with a wider community, which in turn builds customer loyalty and deepens trust with their current and future customer base. 

Researchers may not be looking to enter the limelight in their respective businesses, but they still have a responsibility to share an informed stance and to guide businesses in the right direction to operate more responsibly, more effectively and more profitably.

Satsuko VanAntwerp is lead researcher at Xero.


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