Making your research accessible

The Sexual Health and HIV Evidence to Policy Project (SHHEP): Exploring the art and science of influencing

By 18 July 2011

I’m delighted that after a long period of rumination SHHEP have published a Supplement of Health Research Policy and Systems which gives a rich picture of the work conducted by collaborators. The 15 papers in the Supplement synthesise the experiences of 4 multi-country research programmes on HIV and SRH funded by UKAID.

I’ve worked on projects related to health, sexual rights and HIV for a long time – as part of a research team and as an advocate. For much of the time the issues I’ve focused on have been neglected, contested and misunderstood. For those of us working on unpopular and overlooked areas of development research this Supplement provides useful learning.

I found working as part of SHHEP fascinating because of the broad range of stakeholders involved and the types of influencing strategies that people were using. Three areas stand out for me:

  • Understanding of the nature of research impact;
  • Exploring how the positionality of researchers and other stakeholders influence their approach and;
  • The importance of collaborations between researchers and communication professionals.

The challenges and importance of studying research impact

Many academics working on international development believe that: the results of research are not easily measurable; impacts are difficult to define – particularly when we are looking at processes of social transformation; and that change happens over the long term. This is all undoubtedly true and sometimes pressures to show cost efficiency over simplify the very difficult business of research uptake. Nevertheless complexity shouldn’t be a barrier to enquiry.

The paper by Sumner et al explores the factors that influence the impact of public health research evidence on sexual and reproductive health policy. Despite the methodological challenges of exploring and demonstrating impact they highlight the need for continued work on understanding and measuring research uptake and the interventions that people employ to make change happen.

Papers in the Supplement document a number of different influencing interventions. To me this reiterates the importance of allowing space for experimentation and flexibility in what communication strategy is adopted based on factors such as the type of research, environment and skill sets of those doing the work. Proper documentation of research uptake processes, particularly the mistakes that are made along the way and the negative consequences of the work are crucial. Researchers should be commended rather than punished for an open and frank discussion of the ways in which interventions sometimes fail or impact in surprising ways.  It would be good to see more of this in the future.

Background and worldview matter

Where the worlds of public health, social science and activism collide there are different ideas about what constitutes evidence and the role of academics in influencing. Fans of the randomized control trial might rub up against those who favour a more participatory approach or the scholar who is deeply embedded in advocacy networks. This may sometimes lead to an uncomfortable friction.

As Theobald and Crichton point out in one of the papers in the Supplement, “Each researcher and communications specialist we interviewed had a unique perspective on what policy influence means, what activities are part of policy influence, and what should be the role of research evidence in policy. Differences in views were in part shaped by disciplinary affiliation and in part by professional identity and personal outlook.”

But despite the differences the conversations prompted by SHHEP were deeply rewarding. Whilst it’s more common to stress the importance of a context specific response to research uptake and an understanding of the prevailing views of potential audiences it might be fruitful to think a little more about the positionality of different researchers and communications professionals in the process.

Communications and research environment

Working at IDS I am lucky to be part of an environment which is very communications enabled and where research uptake work is emphasized. Not all of the contributors to the Supplement were able to draw on the skills and experiences of a community of practice within their own organization. But a strong take home message from many of the papers was that communications specialists have an important role to play not only in assisting with ‘dissemination’ at the end of a piece of research but in strengthening the research process as a whole.

The paper by Oronje et al provides useful learning on a longstanding collaboration between researchers and the media in Kenya. They stress the importance of enhancing the skills and understanding of both parties through enduring partnerships built on respect and trust. As we see more technological advances and ever more sophisticated public relations and advertising work on the part of other actors in the development process the skills of communications experts are likely to become even more important.

As communicators I think we need to become more research enabled. Monitoring, learning and evaluation has always been an important element of strategic communications. But working on SHHEP I was able to take a step back from the fast paced and demanding role of communicating to have some more time for in depth reflection which was facilitated by a very skillful set of researchers. This was hugely valuable and something that we should build into strategic approaches to research communication as we move forward.