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Director's Message: Valuing and Communicating Science That Advances Justice


...if the results of research are never effectively communicated to criminal justice practitioners, the relevance and utility of that research is severely diminished.

Howard Spivak, May 2017

The value of criminal justice research is inextricably tied to the extent to which it informs and improves policy and practice. If a research project fails to address the field’s priority questions, or if the results of research are never effectively communicated to criminal justice practitioners, the relevance and utility of that research is severely diminished. The research we fund must not only respond to the real-world needs of criminal justice practitioners and the communities they serve; the resulting knowledge must be effectively communicated beyond the research community with a focus on empowering practitioners to implement practical, evidence-based solutions.

While NIJ has always placed a premium on funding relevant research, we have heard from both criminal justice practitioners and researchers that we can and should do more to emphasize the importance of communicating results to the field. We agree!

NIJ has historically required research applicants to include a plan for dissemination to broader audiences in research proposals. In fiscal year 2017, we are attaching a specific score to dissemination plans, with a particular emphasis on innovative, expansive communication to practitioner audiences. By doing this, we are signaling to the research community that communicating your findings to the policymakers and practitioners who determine the value and impact of results on public safety is imperative, and it is a responsibility that NIJ and the researchers we fund share.

In making this change, we also are calling on research organizations, particularly academic institutions, to critically reflect on what they value when assessing a professor’s qualifications for receiving tenure. Currently, the currencies that academia and the field trade in are extremely different, with academia valuing scholarly publications in academic journals above all else. To do so at the exclusion of valuing the impact a researcher has on real-world practice minimizes the relevance of research as a whole.

Our new policy of including dissemination strategies as a formal rating factor for applications underscores this point, and whether research institutions receive grant funding from NIJ now is partially dependent on their staff's ability and capacity to communicate to the field.

This expectation also augments the importance of designing research projects that hold the promise of practical and impactful results. Before we can even consider how to disseminate research findings to policymakers and practitioners, we must first ensure that the proposed research is relevant to real-world problems, may reach all of those who can benefit from it, and shows a positive potential impact on public safety and the administration of justice.

As always, researchers are encouraged to forge sustainable partnerships with criminal justice practitioners not only for access to data, but for better comprehension of the field’s needs, insight on project development, exposure to the context in which results exist, and a better understanding of the potential impact of the results produced and how best to communicate that value. We are also calling on practitioners to not only be a willing partner in research endeavors, but to proactively seek out these partnerships. 

Together we can advance the administration of justice in this country through science. Rigorous, relevant research is the evidence-base on which we build an understanding of what works and what matters to reduce violent crime, keep our officers safe, and effectively serve and protect the American people. We all must be in constant communication to guarantee that research is informing and improving criminal justice policy and practice, and NIJ is committed to ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table for the discussion.