The (not so) easy task of translating research into policy and practice

Article originally published at Research to Action 

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Image: Alper Çuğun

How can research feed into development policy and support positive change? This question remains critical to the development research community, and attempts to answer it often rest on understanding the roles, interactions and incentives between the many different actors in the research to policy process.

The challenge of answering it was recently put to a group of influential researchers, practitioners and policy-makers at a ‘sandpit’ event in Nairobi (6th-8th September 2012). Similar to the CDKN’s Action Lab, the event took a speed dating approach and had a specific focus on climate change and conflict. Participants were tasked with developing group proposals that combine cutting-edge scientific research with innovative capacity building tools and evidence of policy uptake.

The hope was to share knowledge and ideas, develop new networks, and (above all) encourage healthy completion in applying for the upcoming Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change (CCMCC) call. Emphasis was on linking different skill sets and ensuring their research has the maximum impact on the ground (i.e. more than just resulting in academic papers and other research outputs).

Numerous consortia quickly took shape. A wide range of interesting issues were discussed and proposed, such as: what are the impacts of climate change (and climate policies) on conflict affected areas? Are there tipping points between cooperation and conflict? And what can we do to effectively build the resilience of poor communities in fragile states (is resilience in fragile states even the same as in other contexts)?

Brilliant minds, influential people, and cutting-edge questions: surely a quick-win recipe for meaningful change? Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. It quickly became clear that what was being asked was more ambitious than many participants had previously envisaged.

Research to policy to practice: a logical chain?

The development sector revolves around the principle that better use of research and evidence in policy and practice can help save lives, reduce poverty and improve quality of life. Yet, applying research to guide and inform the development sector’s many actors (from donors and researchers to NGOs and policy makers) and shaping the policy agenda is a difficult task – for more see the work of ODI’s Research and Policy in Development programme.

In practice, academic research typically has little influence on policy. When it does, it’s far more complex than the linear model of research-informing-policy-leading-to-change-on-the-groundWhy? One reason emerged above all others in discussions at the CCMCC sandpit:

Perverse incentives

It may not always be evident, but traditional systems for incentivising and evaluating academics (i.e. measuring their success) are largely incompatible with practitioners needs and often discourage the integration of research into policy and practice. For example, the success of a university academic – say a professor – is primarily measured against the number of peer-reviewed journal articles he/she produces, and the number of times those papers are cited by their peers (typically other university academics). Yet academic articles rarely feature on a policy-maker’s radar. If they do, they are often found behind an expensive paywall.

What’s more, research often comes in a language that is incomprehensible to many policy-makers. Often technical research needs to be translated into practical and engaging recommendations that communicates uncertainties and relates strongly to a policy-maker’s decision-making environment. Yet shorter non-technical outputs like policy briefs, blogs and other forms of grey literature are rarely recognised or rewarded from an academic’s perspective.

Blame is not only attributable to the system of producing and communicating research. From a policy perspective, research is supposed to feed into decision-making and planning. However, few developing countries have been able to equip their technical officers with the resources and networks to be able to translate new research into policy relevant actions for key decision-makers (say a head district government).

New approaches to capacity building

And what about using research to support capacity building of policy-makers? Well one is thing is clear: creating better links between research and policy will require innovation and thinking outside of the box. The standard model for communicating development research to policy makers has long been to host a workshop. As part of this model, decision-makers are introduced to countless conceptual frameworks and receive guidance on the latest development interests (whether it’s climate change, water and sanitation, or maternal health care). It’s typically a one-way knowledge sharing process, and rarely does it result in practical change (unless there are clear financial incentives to do so). ‘Workshop fatigue’ is a real issue. Researchers looking to support capacity building and influence policy are therefore required to try new approaches if they want to demonstrate real change. One example is to trial other forms of experiential learning, like ‘policy-gaming’. Other innovations are desperately needed.

An ambitious future for development research

Thankfully, there are signs of change. The CoCoon call is a brilliant example of this: bringing together different members of the development community that rarely interact directly and asking them to design (and document) a research process that will build capacity and translate into policy change. CDKN has similar objectives with its research calls, requiring applicants to provide evidence for the demand of their research from policy-makers themselves.  

As members of the CoCoon event were quick to point out, asking researchers to do all of this together as one package is an ambitious task. It’s a task that rarely receives sufficient financial resources to do all components effectively – from research design, to innovative capacity building, to M&E of impact. However, until the right incentives structures are created, and entry points for collaboration strengthened, change will not happen. The lead taken by CoCoon, CDKN and others is hoping to incentivise this change and instil new ways of translating research into policy and practice.

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