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Of Course Research Has Impact. Here’s how.

August 2, 2017
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Irene Guijt, Oxfam GB’s head of research, puts me straight after my recent scepticism about the impact of research.irene-guijttom-gauld-auld-atom-a-recent-cartoon-for-a-newscientist-11294776

And I don’t mean personal impact on CVs. At the annual Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) impact award ceremony in Westminster, I got a glimpse of the best of what that Research Council has to offer society. I was deeply impressed (even if prize winners are inevitably unrepresentative).

As Oxfam’s head of research, I’m obviously biased, but I think INGO research can have real impact. Take the three years of research on Davos that Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow Attorney General, said had shaped all her learning on inequality. Or the World Bank including unpaid care roles for the first time, based on research and policy work led by Thalia Kidder.

Such impact is more often drip, drip than earth shattering light bulb moment. Similarly, the ESRC Impact awards went to often long term, efforts to understand and apply insights. The finalists were gobsmacking in their breadth, depth and societal impact.

Who knew that in our very own Oxford backyard we house the award-winning researcher Professor Lucie Culver? Her work ‘Cash for Care’ has has helped over two million girls in 10 African countries avoid contracting HIV/AIDS since 2014. (How did they measure that impact?). Here’s a 5m video summary:

Another Oxford-based winner (of the Outstanding Impact in Society), the Migration Observatory, has become phenomenally influential by simply providing impartial data. In a Britain that was prone to making unfounded, sweeping generalizations about refugees, they set up the first independent source of migration data, “prompting more nuanced media coverage on polarised issues such as the assumption that EU immigration is driven by ‘welfare benefits tourism’”.

And fiscal justice anyone? Professor Michael Levi was runner-up of Outstanding International Impact for his work on illicit financial flows that generated key, actionable insights about the £13billion cost to the UK. Particularly cool is his co-founding of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Organized Crime, to intervene against professionals that make financial crimes possible, not only frontline criminals.

I was struck by the consistency of what made their research have the impact it did. Impact requires compassion – these researchers Pathways_to_Impactcare. They care about the injustice of people dying from cold in the UK (energy poverty research that can benefit 54 million people – who knew?). They care about ensuring our judicial systems are fair and believable by improving – over the course of 25 years (!) – how victims are interviewed. They care about giving ethnic minorities an entrepreneurial chance. They care about being informed about issues that affect many people deeply.  Five criteria were mentioned at the awards: sharp – no wastage around definition of theme; fiercely independent – no writing of conclusions beforehand; exceptional quality; deeply relevant and beautifully communicated. Then ‘impact follows as night after day’.

So how is this relevant to Oxfam’s evidence-informed aspiration?

Valuing the long haul. Much of this work rewards dogged long term efforts. Three, five and even 25 year processes of research and applying findings. These were not awards for people who had received funding over the past 12 months but over years and requires a bit more than ‘merely writing a policy brief’, as argued recently by Professor Hilhorst. Or in Oxfam’s case – requires more than publishing simply to be heard.

are we making an impactThat’s why ‘big C’ communication has got to be high on our priority list.  The prize winners were not just into producing a snazzy infographic (or, dare I say it, blog). They translated what they found into training courses for police (all of them in the UK), into practical programmes and specific policies. They held town hall meetings to share their findings. They invested much time simply listening – to cold citizens, abused girls, maligned victims of crimes, keen entrepreneurs. They set up information centres and put accessible information out there. They knew what a wide communication approach was needed as part of evidence.

Let’s not be hostile to academics (or make sweeping generalisations) – as long as they in turn recognise that Oxfam brings loads to the table. Joint work would be a win-win. Research grant givers are serious about societal impact – it’s not just a formality in the application process. Thinking in detail about impact pathways gets you not only lots of brownie points in the grant appraisal process but also the Holy Grail of actual impact.  The ESRC Award winners showed what was possible. And Oxfam has much to offer the research world – grounded questions, innovative methods, excellent engagement skills, vast networks, access to influentials, direct feeding into advocacy and programming, and sharp analysis.

The awards made me even hungrier to connect with the world of passionate researchers who care about those with the least. There is massive potential. If you want to talk, contact me on iguijt[at]Oxfam.org.uk

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this Irene – good stuff. It is increasingly clear to me that what Carol Weiss called (a long time ago) the ‘enlightenment’ function of social research i.e. the slow drip and accumulation of evidence and knowledge is key to enabling shorter term policy oriented research to gain any traction. It is the combination of the ‘long haul work’ and more targetted advocacy and communication that seems to be required. Don’t tell me that Oxfam’s impact in Davos would have been the same if the Thomas Pikettys and Branko Milanovics of the world had not helped to create an environment in which those messages became more politically salient. As you suggest this requires a better understanding and mutual respect for those pursuing similar agendas albeit in different ways, at different levels and with different time-frames. And those spanning the boundaries between these worlds to help interpret the value of both and their mutual interdependence.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Totally agree re Davos research landing in a very fertile bed. It’s creating that large scale conversation at many levels expressed with different graphs and levels of detail but the same message – inequality is growing and its bad for people living in poverty. And such conversations emerge after being nudged, kicked, cajoled into life in different ways. Academics and organisations like Oxfam can spot and then highlight whatever it is that needs to be made visible so that at least people can’t say ‘I didn’t know’. Enormous potential in working together more. I’m up for lots of it.

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