Blog: Why we struggle to repeat the trick of turning academic research into action

May 2016

If we want robust evidence to promote global development we need to focus less on the impact of specific pieces of research and support academics to become better connected.

We need to challenge the concept of the superstar researcher whose ground breaking discovery will help beat global poverty. Instead we need to support whole knowledge ecosystems where evidence emerging from many different places can be combined, reframed and repackaged to respond to the most pressing humanitarian and development challenges.

Evidence matters but not as much as we’d like

Anyone watching policy debated in their media and parliaments (assuming you have a functioning democracy, transparent government and media to observe) can plainly see that the use of research in the sphere of public policy is only one very small part of a complicated process that mainly relates to political expediency, vested interests, ideology, social technologies, and judgment. Despite this, the funding for universities and think tanks to promote ‘research uptake’ often relates to specific research projects as do the methods for evaluating success and value for money.

This is arguably how the Research Excellence Framework for UK universities has been designed, encouraging academics to try and identify what specific impacts their particular research has had on policy, practice and key people’s understanding of issues. Perhaps given the spectacular challenges in attributing changes in policy or practice to specific research studies we should not be surprised that researchers and their donors seem to continue to struggle to repeat the trick of turning research into action.

With the obvious barriers to the influence of research on policy and the squeeze on research funding, the temptation for development agencies may be to commission research that is narrowly focused on practical issues and technical solutions. A new vaccine, a new water purification technology or a better system for distributing bed nets, may look like the best value for money. However, where does this leave rigorous academic studies that seek to explore emerging development challenges, the underlying causes of poverty or ineffective humanitarian responses? If we want to secure sustained investment in social science research designed to improve poor people’s lives we need to consider some other approaches.

A better evidence-based response to development challenges 

This week, almost two hundred social scientists, donors and NGOs met in South Africato explore how evidence, and particularly local knowledge, can be brought to bear on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They have been discussing the nature of research impact, amongst other things. What is emerging from some of these discussions is that medium to long term impacts from development research often relate to embedding the behaviours and strengthening the relationships that will enable ongoing development and impact. This particularly relates to the crucial role of researchers, communities and policy actors in developing countries in the co-production and contextualisation of research knowledge.

Just consider the way in which researchers from the Institute of Development Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the universities of Sussex, Exeter, and Njala in Sierra Leone, all collaborated around the Ebola crisis. The Ebola Response Anthropology Platform was set up in just a few weeks to provide valuable insight into the social rather than the medical dimensions of the Ebola emergency response, such as taking into account local burial practices. Whilst this resource and the subsequent meetings and briefings that were generated did influence the UK Government’s strategy in West Africa as well as helping to shape humanitarian action locally, ERAP is also being seen as a model for future social science engagement in epidemics and emergencies. This is where it may achieve real impact on behaviours and development processes that in indirect ways could save many more lives in the future.

Creating networks not prize winners

There is nothing wrong with Nobel Prize winning scientists grabbing the headlines, as long as we accept that it is often critical bodies of knowledge, mobilised via networks and across sectors that seem able to provide scalable solutions to health, education, environmental and socioeconomic dilemmas. It was with this in mind we designed the Impact Initiative for International Development Research, which is supporting a diverse community of researchers. Our approach reflects the view emerging from a number of key development research funders, including the UK’s Economic and Science Research Council (ESRC), that researchers need to be supported to become better connected, and operate in more enabling environments for research impact. Rather than focus on the ‘uptake’ of a single study the Initiative identifies synergies between the social scientists it supports (all 150 of them spanning 70 countries working on issues ranging from secure livelihoods, disability, inequality in education, health system reform, climate adaptation and much more besides) and seeks out ways to help them to collectively exploit influencing and engagement opportunities.

The goal is to support this rich portfolio of research to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Will this enable us to turn research into action? If it results in new ways of thinking and collaborating on urgent development challenges, then at the very least it may remove some of the key barriers to research impact.

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This article was originally posted on The Guardian Global Development Professionals network on April 5th 2016.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and DFID: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or DFID.

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