Beyond infrastructural issues: informal barriers to social work research.

Author:Howard, Matthew O.

Early in June, I had the good fortune to serve on one of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Epidemiology and Behavior Genetics Study Sections. As an ad hoc reviewer, I was asked to read seven approximately 100-page grant applications, prepare a detailed critique of each proposal, and attend a two-day review session convened in a small hotel in Washington, DC's Dupont Circle neighborhood. The review process was orchestrated with remarkable precision. Each of the roughly 25 members of the study section had carefully reviewed their assigned grants and uploaded their critiques in advance of the meeting. At the meeting, primary reviewers presented pithy summaries of each grant, and all discussants were clearly conversant with the details of the complex and (generally) exciting proposals they were assigned. A total of 53 applications were discussed and scored the first day of the meeting; the session ended before noon the following day, with work completed much earlier than scheduled. Study section members, many of whom are internationally respected scientists, each dedicated approximately 80 to 100 hours to their reviewing work in return for a small, largely symbolic payment for their efforts. Such commitment to the scientific enterprise is not in short supply. NIH estimates that 28,000 scientists will review more than 40,000 proposals this summer alone.

Following the exhilarating daily review sessions in Washington, DC, I retired to a coffee shop and made my way through a recent special issue of Social Work Research (SWR.) titled "Research Capacity and Infrastructure Development in Schools of Social Work" (December 2008, Vol. 32, No. 4). The 14 articles (including the editorial) in this special issue together constitute a uniquely comprehensive assessment of infrastructural impediments to research in social work. Despite the clear utility and high quality of the special issue, I found the reading discouraging. How can it be, I wondered, that scientific activity seems so alive and well (even vibrant and prospering) in so many fields and yet continues to fight for its mere existence in social work? Answers to this question are many, of course, and include the role of infrastructural and extra-infrastructural barriers to research activity in social work. Infrastructural impediments to social work research identified in the recent special issue are summarized below. An attempt is then made to identify a few informal, extra-infrastructural barriers to research productivity in social work.


Among the barriers to social work research identified in the special issue are the absence of a "comprehensive framework for understanding [research] capacity building from a more holistic organizational perspective" (Shera, 2008, p. 275); paucity of monies "for pilot studies, support for grant applications, grant match, technical support, course releases, financial incentives, student assistantship support, travel, computer software, mentorship, ongoing research consultation, and research collaboration...

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