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Research into Use: how can Climate Change Researchers have more Impact?

July 26, 2017
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Following on the recent kerfuffle about ‘research impact’ (see original and follow up posts), I spent some time chatting to climate

Namibia

Namibia

researchers in Cape Town about ‘research into use’ (RiU, basically the same thing). The researchers are part of ASSAR, a consortium (of which Oxfam is a member) working across Africa and India with a big focus (30% of its project weighting) on RiU.

Feel free to consult the consortium’s guidance note on RiU and a more detailed learning guide, but this post is about the topics that came up in the conversation, where the practical application of these issues added at least three new angles on the research impact question.

Timing: there’s a very poor fit between the timing of research and that of RiU. If you’re lucky, you may get funds for five years for a new and innovative project like ASSAR, but it takes 1-2 years to really sort out how you are going to approach the research, and then another couple to start getting the findings coming through. Then the last year is a blizzard of papers, briefing notes, conferences etc etc. Then silence – the funding runs out.

Now look at how impact works. Typically, the papers need to be written and published, so that puts you towards the end of the project. Much more likely is that they will find their way to the right desks after the programme is finished. Either because that’s how long it takes people like me to wade through our reading piles, or because research uptake must often wait until particular events (climate shocks, changes of political leadership) create the demand for all this supply.

ASSAR-logo--transpWhat to do to try and bring the funding and the impact more into alignment? Fund for 10 years not five? Leave some money in an account after the project ends to finance some kind of sleeper cell that can leap into action when such moment arrive, rehashing the research and getting it to the newly attentive decision makers? Any other ideas?

Relationships: Impact is about relationships more than paper. Decision makers want to be able to pick up the phone and ask advice of experts who they have learned to trust, not be told to read the latest impenetrable academic papers. Researchers that have these networks are invaluable. Sometimes it’s because they’re old – an established track record + grateful former students form an enormous intellectual asset for ageing academics. Or because they are already well connected, often through family connections that saw them as teenagers sitting round the kitchen table with the country’s future leaders (think the Miliband brothers). One ASSAR researcher, Margaret Angula has just such a network in Namibia, and it massively increases the chances of RiU.

But can we redesign research programmes to recognize the importance of relationships? Should applicants for research posts submit their phone directories to a social network analysis (hiring for membership of Old Boys/Girls Networks is not very egalitarian….)? Should research programmes deliberately push older, more networked researchers into outreach rather than publishing (and would they agree to do so)? Or how about a mentoring system where the older researchers are twinned with a young rising star, take them around and introduce them, then step back and let them take over some of their network ‘accounts’? I’d love to hear of some examples of this.

Because what doesn’t work, I fear, is trying to force un-networked, unconfident young researchers to become glad-handing social climate change adaptationbutterflies. How can we get better at ‘going where the energy is’, identifying and supporting those researchers who really want to do this stuff?

Comms: The ‘go where the energy is’ mantra applies at least as much to the more public aspects of RiU. Cautious academics petrified of prematurely revealing their findings (someone might nick them!), making a mistake or looking stupid are unlikely to take to blogging or radio interviews. Instead, find the ones who like writing and communicating and back them. Which includes incentives: how can researchers (young or old) be sufficiently rewarded (professionally as well as morally) for the time and energy put into ensuring impact?

The alternative is to separate the comms and research functions – lots of academic institutions and thinktanks have comms teams, but here too, there are serious drawbacks. Journalists often want to hear from the researcher not the spin doctor (organ grinders; monkeys) and can get irritated if their questions are met with a series of ‘let me find out and get back to you’ responses. An alternative to the alternative is to work with hybrid ‘knowledge brokers’ who are sufficiently across the issues to digest and translate what is out there, linking supply with demand (i.e. find out the needs, then harvest the pertinent research, translate it and provide it). But it’s very hard to get comms people who can do it all – come up with crazy, out of the box ways of communicating, be deeply immersed in research methodologies and findings, and be deeply immersed in the policy or other system the research is supposed to be influencing. Easier to locate such skills across a team than within one superhuman individual, I guess.

Thoughts?

And here’s ASSAR’s take on Research into Use

3 comments

  1. Hi Duncan, completely agree with James Georgalakis (March post) when he says that evidence into use is a social process, not a technical one, but I don’t think the solution is having well networked-researchers (and quite troubled by the idea of an elite generating knowledge to feed decision makers in rather inaccessible close circles). I’m interested in how can evidence use and uptake be strategically planned for, how knowledge demand is generated and refined, how stakeholders are involved in the different stages of the process, so when the policy brief or the report is available, we are hungry for it and prepared to action upon it.

  2. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for the post. I wanted to respond specifically to your section on communications. I think I should probably start by saying the sad fact is there is no one size fits all – I’ve seen comms impact happen with so many different formulas over the years and people don’t like to hear this as we love everything to neatly fit into boxes, but it’s a totally organic process. Actually, just this week I was interviewing a researcher who finished a project a number of years back and has had some really interesting uptake. The project has helped to shift conceptual thinking about an issue at a global and national level (more on this at a later date when we publish the report…). But her project and other examples have some common emerging themes. So here would be my top 6 comms musts (I was hoping for 5, but then I got a bit carried away) the rest is up for grabs and depends on your situation:

    1. People people people: contacts, networking and collaboration are the key to it all, as you say – without that you can’t get very far and if they don’t exist, you have to build them (this has been said by many people in your recent blogs and I reiterate it strongly). Without this, I would go so far as to say nothing else matters.
    2. Ensure that you have credibility. Comms doesn’t get very far without this.
    3. I am totally in agreement with you about finding researcher champions who love doing comms – they also mobilise others. I would still say, don’t shy away from the non-naturals. I have seen some fantastic comms work from those who just need to build confidence or need more support. But I would never push anyone into doing a public facing activity if they REALLY didn’t want to. That’s just not fair and actually probably won’t achieve much.
    4. Linked to this, there is nothing wrong with bringing in knowledge brokers – understanding that you may not be the best messenger after all is just as important as working out your messages. And you may need to work with others who have better relationships, credibility or resources.
    5. I love the funding idea you mention for after projects end. And even during a project life, it’s a totally obvious one but SO SO important – without good resourcing and support in whatever ever forms that takes (one person, a team effort etc.) you can’t get very far. I think that promoting otherwise just encourages poor resourcing, either of time or money, and illusions of what can be achieved. I once wrote a blog promoting do-it-yourself videos, but I’ve since changed my mind a bit on this. You try getting someone to watch your video if it’s poor quality with bad sound or just wobbles all over the place (although Snapchat, amateur phone video is another discussion for another time).
    6. Finally, don’t separate comms and research (too much) – it’s got to be a collaborative effort which ensures mutual respect for each other’s expertise. Embrace the tension that often comes up (as you will know from my blog post on here a number of months back).

    And as for the elusive superhuman comms person – they do exist but they are few and far between and they don’t stick around for very long…

  3. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks so much for this post. For several years I’ve worked as an independent consultant to a DFID and SIDA funded ‘evidence into action’ (#EiA!) programme (EHPSA – see below) relating to HIV prevention, and although the sectors are very different, my observations are that many of your comments extend to EHPSA’s experiences with EiA/RiU.

    On timing, for the sorts of reasons that you mention, by the time that EHPSA published a call for research proposals, it had to recognise that all the research would have to be completed from start-up within 30 months – incredibly tight, even with lots of pre-conditions for suitable research at the outset. The programme time-frame has then left minimal time for write-up, dissemination and follow-up engagement with evidence users. The programme‘s counterparts in DFID and SIDA recognise the issues but understandably it seems difficult to shift organisational ways of doing things to accommodate the sort of longer-term EiA activities that you suggest. Faced with this, EHPSA has been encouraging researchers to maximize the time of the research itself to develop relationships and initiate communicating. For example, processes of ethical clearance at the outset provided a chance for researchers to begin to relate to potential evidence-users.

    I completely agree with all the comments on the critical importance of relationships. I’ve seen some interesting examples of this from within EHPSA that come from its HIV-focus but may be adaptable into other sectors:
    (1) Research organisations that are also implementers are in a strong position to take forward evidence – many of EHPSA’s research partners also have contracts to implement HIV programmes, often reflecting recently acknowledged best practice and operating with donor funding within government frameworks. The requirements of implementation and contract management mean that the organisations have to have good relationships with key players within government and with donors, and informal conversations about current research happen around more formal engagement concerning implementation. Such organisations get the business of engagement in a way that pure researchers may not.
    (2) HIV research in Africa has strong links to northern institutions and is internationally connected – many HIV research programmes in Africa have historic links to research institutions in North America and Europe, and maintain strong connections. This means that research findings may be quickly plugged into international networks of researchers and evidence-users (including the major international players that set international policy and funding priorities – UNAIDS, WHO, the Global Fund and PEPFAR) as well as national policy-makers. (Possibly this is something that Oxfam is looking to bring to ASSAR?)
    (3) Research organisations may have a critical role in developing groups from affected communities to have voice and to scale-up findings – research which EHPSA commissioned to understand how positive change had happened for communities such as sex workers, MSM, intravenous drug users and prisoners (who typically have high prevalence of HIV but are socially and politically marginalised) found that in many successful processes, researchers had played an important role in giving groups from within the communities voice to speak on the implications of research findings and capacity to implement findings. Often researchers had worked through small groups from these communities as a way of reaching into the community, but in time, had also supported the emergence of these groups as active civil society players who were involved in policy processes to support EiA and as early implementers of scale-up activities. (The equivalent would be ASSAR members researching through local farmer groups, and then supporting their growth into becoming local/national policy players and funded implementers of good practice established through the research).
    I wonder if these sorts of opportunities for relationships only occur in the HIV sector, or are found more generally?

    Many thanks again.

    Nigel
    @SilverLotheni

    EHPSA is Evidence for HIV prevention in Southern Africa http://www.ehpsa.org/

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