by Chris Jordan, Communications and Research Uptake Manager at Brooks World Poverty Institute
There’s an increasing pressure both in the UK and around the world for researchers to demonstrate the tangible benefits to society of their work. ‘Impact’, ‘uptake’ and ‘knowledge exchange’ are taken (and resourced) increasingly seriously. The days of the ivory tower are numbered.
I joined The University of Manchester a year ago from ActionAid, where I’d worked on campaigns and advocacy. As a ‘communications and uptake manger, I’m excited about the shift, and making the most of the amazing research that is done here.
Working within international development, I think there’s also a moral imperative for researchers to ensure their work helps to contribute, in some form or other, to reducing poverty and promoting social justice.
However (like most things in life) enthusiasm and good intentions are not sufficient. Getting research into use is often a convoluted, long term exercise in relationship building. And in any case, in the complex, contested spaces of most developing countries, simply blundering in with the latest breakthrough findings could end up having negative consequences for the population at large.
In international development ‘research uptake’ is becoming the accepted (but not universally liked) definition, driven in part byDFID’s promotion and funding alongside its research grants. Despite its limitations, the emphasis on stakeholder demand and engagement provides a much more fertile ground than previous incarnations, which simply stressed communication or dissemination.
While the various components of uptake aren’t new, the concept and some of the practical implications and pressures are – so it was incredibly valuable to join 150 participants at the ResUp MeetUp recently in Nairobi.
Part conference and part training, ResUp did a fantastic job of challenging, exploring and explaining all the big conceptual and practical issues around research uptake. A summary of the event(s) are impressively captured in this storify.
In terms of the bigger picture, there are three big issues that are a work in progress for me:
Impact over time
While the DFID guidance does see uptake as a process that begins as research is conceived, people put most emphasis on the ‘final’ impact of research, in terms of influencing policy or practice.
The problem is that in the real world generating really significant impacts takes many, many years. We heard from someone closely involved with the REF that average timespan of an impact case study was around 15 years. This does not align with the typical donor funded research project of 3-6 years.
Do we need to be more honest about the type of impact we’re likely to achieve in a shorter timespan – and adjust our activities accordingly? Or should we be finding longer term ways of supporting, funding and monitoring impact?
Quality and ethics
What type of research should be promoted in the first instance? With funders increasingly building uptake into research budgets, are we in danger of assuming that every piece of research should attempt to influence policy – regardless of its quality or appropriateness to a particular context?
There’s also a legitimate concern that much development research is not commissioned by developing county governments themselves. This is an inevitable barrier to getting a hearing – but is also likely to be more fundamentally skewing the type of research that is desired.
Social or political change doesn’t happen in a neat, linear fashion but some uptake models/thinking assume a linear, almost technocratic approach.
Promoting research findings is not a neutral act, and without a keen understanding of the political context you’re working in, it’s easy to see how a well-intentioned policy recommendation could have unforeseen ramifications. The risk is particularly acute for northern ‘experts’ on whistle-stop tours with uptake indicators to achieve for their project.
None of these challenges are insurmountable, but they do require careful thought and action by all those involved in research uptake. There are many echoes of the debates international NGOs conduct about their roles, accountability and effectiveness in different developing country contexts – and much to learn. But given the self-awareness and commitment of the people I met at ResUp, I’m confident that we’re headed in the right direction.
View Chris’ presentation slides below: