As expected, the meeting held December 7 and 8 on establishing a research agenda in access to justice was exciting and productive. There were about 40 people there, half researcher and half practitioners from courts and legal. The meetings on the first day, which consisted of a Poster Session and and Town Hall, were open to all, Here are some of my personal takeways:
The anxiety about research within the legal aid community is far less, and the Town Hall helped foster that change in mood (there was only one negative comment). Indeed, there is now an unprecedented level of interest in both the practitioner and research communities. One of the major goals of the gathering was to foster matching between researchers interested in answering questions, and practitioners, and my impression was that a lot of good conversations have started. (I have to say that I got sick of the dating analogies in the discussion, however.)
We now have the beginnings of a research agenda, with interest in topics including the following:
- Exploring what works (and for whom) (biggest area of interest)
- Deciding what outcomes are important to use
- Documenting economic impact
Personally, I was particularly interested in detailed discussion of research into particular innovations, such as legal aid brief service, document assembly, legal aid protocols, court self-help services, judicial education, etc. I think there is a real chance that we will see much more research into these questions. They are of course critical not only to decisions as to which innovations to deploy, but how to build triage systems that reflect real knowledge, not just program instincts. Practitioner should note that the world really is full of researchers looking for topics to research — but, as was pointed out repeatedly, they need to become involved in planning and discussions before, not after, the data are collected. (I am not getting into any possible dating analogy here!)
It is also likely that there will be a follow-up application to NSF for what is called a Research Coordination Network Grant, that would facilitate future networking. While its form is far from clear, there was also a very strong interest in establishing some form of matching service. (Some wanted it on the web, my own view is that human credibility is also critical in the process.) Also, an online information sharing space is on the agenda.
A concluding note: I know that there were lots of people who wanted to be there, who deserved to be there, and who would have contributed had they been there. It was hard enough to manage a conversation with the 40 or so that were there. Please know that there was a commitment among those who were there to ongoing broader networking and participation. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “We haven’t a research resource to waste.”
For those who are interested, here is the Program Synopsis of the Research Coordination Network Grant Program:
The goal of the RCN program is to advance a field or create new directions in research or education by supporting groups of investigators to communicate and coordinate their research, training and educational activities across disciplinary, organizational, geographic and international boundaries. RCN provides opportunities to foster new collaborations, including international partnerships, and address interdisciplinary topics. Innovative ideas for implementing novel networking strategies, collaborative technologies, and development of community standards for data and meta-data are especially encouraged. RCN awards are not meant to support existing networks; nor are they meant to support the activities of established collaborations. RCN awards do not support primary research. RCN supports the means by which investigators can share information and ideas, coordinate ongoing or planned research activities, foster synthesis and new collaborations, develop community standards, and in other ways advance science and education through communication and sharing of ideas.
The grants do not fund research.