Bridging the gap between academia and the NGO and policy worlds

An immigrant grocery store on Via Padova, Milan.
An immigrant grocery store on Via Padova, Milan.

I have recently returned from the International Metropolis Conference in Milan, a week-long gathering to talk about the challenges and opportunities of international migration. Unlike most of the conferences that I’ve attended in my academic career so far, most of the attendees were not university-based researchers. Delegates came from various world governments, global NGOs, private sector businesses, and small non-profits. On the first day, for example, I went on a tour of the migrant neighborhood of Via Padova with several Southeast Asian bureaucrats, a representative from a Europe-based intergovernmental organization, and a puppeteer working with refugee children in the Middle East.

I was initially attracted to the conference because the mix of delegates seemed to open up possibilities for dialogue across sectors. While many social scientists (and social science funding bodies) want their research to influence policymaking and advocacy work, there are structural barriers to making that happen. A team of Australian researchers has argued that the incentive structures of academia don’t put much emphasis on disseminating research to broader audiences. On the other side of the equation, policymakers say that they don’t hear from researchers enough and don’t have strong professional relationships with them (Cherney et al. 2012; Head et al. 2014; see LSE blog post summarizing the project if you don’t have access to the articles). To bridge this gap, then, policymakers and academic researchers should be brought together for sustained conversation and relationship building.

Metropolis aimed to do just that, and I would say that it has been fairly successful. The plenary sessions included speakers from a variety of sectors and regions of the world. For me, it was interesting to hear about how governments and NGOs are dealing with migration issues pragmatically and in the present. Academic conversations, on the other hand, tend to be critical examinations of past experiences or theorizations about what might be best going forward. The question and answer periods were quite lively, with all of the sectors represented challenging the others with questions coming from different frames of reference.

I would like to see more inter-sector conversations like these, but the barriers are high. The biggest issue with Metropolis is funding. Going to the conference is generally out of reach for all but the most senior academics from the developed world. Regular attendance fees are several times higher than for most academic conferences in North America, for example, and that does not include the extra costs of spending a week in a faraway, potentially expensive location. I also heard from other attendees that the conference has become smaller in recent years because governments and NGOs have been unwilling or unable to send delegates after the financial crisis. On the other hand, one of the organizers of the conference told me that the fees were necessary to offset the high costs of putting the event together, given limited institutional resources.

Of course, not all inter-sector conferences need to be as global in scale and scope as Metropolis. A one-day, low-budget affair bringing together academics, policymakers, non-profits, and business people within one city would be a good start. For example, I’d be interested in attending a small get-together about skilled immigrant workers in Los Angeles’ tech sector, with talks from international students, start-up founders, business incubators, government agencies, and researchers from the city’s universities. Or what about a mini-conference on the challenges facing undocumented people in Los Angeles, with non-profits and local bureaucrats in conversation with sociologists and anthropologists? Great conversations could happen, given some funding and a good amount of effort by people who want to bring academic ideas out of the ivory tower.



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