Making your research accessible

The impact of research on development policy and practice: An introduction to a review of the literature

By 29 July 2013

I work as an academic, development practitioner and policy advisor in the area of Information and Communication Technologies for development (ICT4D), and it has always puzzled me that research in this field has so little impact on policy and professional practice.  When I came across Research to Action, I suddenly felt at home.  The resources here have relevance for my work on a programme for Strengthening Information Society Research Capacity Alliance (SIRCA)* which is building the capacity of emerging Information Society researchers from the Global South. The programme focuses on linking research to practice and is preparing its second book around this theme for which I conducted a review of the literature** on the impact of research on development policy and practice, summarised here, which would benefit from further input from this community.

Two issues leapt out of the pages right from the start.  Firstly, researchers and policy-makers operate with different values, languages, time-frames, reward systems and professional ties to such an extent that they live in separate worlds.  As a result, research-based evidence is often only a minor factor when policies for development are formulated and practices shaped, and too often new public policies are rolled out nationally with little trialling or evaluation.  Moreover, university researchers report structural barriers and disincentives to engaging in knowledge translation activities that might advise practice and policy formulation.  Secondly, impact is regarded differently by each community, with academics fretting over publications, citation counts and journal impact factors, while practitioners look for actionable advice that can be put to use for increasing the effectiveness of public services and policy.

Beyond these underlying issues, several themes emerge from the literature.  Researchers must have the intent to influence policy and practice for their results to do so.  Intent should be written into the research design, but in the absence of other aspects, it will have limited impact.  Communication is the most cited factor for achieving impact; its various forms and processes, channels, timing and involvement pervading the literature and intermingling with the other themes. Significantly, communication is regarded as much more than a mere conference presentation and peer-reviewed publication. ICTs emerge as being instrumental for participant-driven production and communication of research as it unfolds; encompassing social media and other Web 2.0 tools, which, it seems, is at odds with the secretive nature of the research process.  Again, there are structural disincentives that inhibit academic engagement with these tools for the dissemination of research findings.

If researchers do not engage with wider impact processes, then intermediaries are seen as an alternative; either as individual communication specialists or institutions that take on this role.  Intermediaries can also help stimulate the demand for research findings among professionals who may be unaware of their availability or potential but who would be in a position to direct research capacity towards real-world problems in search of resolution. Researchers and/or intermediaries might develop into policy entrepreneurs; people or institutions that invest time and resources to advance a position or policy.  This would involve engaging with the political context within which research might be conducted, repeatedly identified as a determining factor for whether research-based evidence is likely to be adopted by policy makers and practitioners.

Such engagement denotes the need for closer relationships between researchers and research users, requiring co-creation of content and greater involvement in the promotion of results.  Achieving this is only possible through active participation in networks, through which research findings and concepts circulate and are gradually filtered.  Think tanks, advocacy coalitions, policy streams, policy communities and national and regional networks are frequently cited as being important in this regard.

Finally, as a fundamental and decisive determinant of the factors that influence the impact of research on policy and practice, incentives stand out.  Researchers need to be rewarded for making the knowledge they generate accessible and useable by wider audiences and officials need to be more involved within knowledge transfer processes and further sensitised to the strength of evaluation and evidence that research can produce.

The literature review is targeted for publication in our book in early 2014, but in the spirit of achieving wider impact, the programme organisers and publishers need to consider further activities for increasing its relevance among the policy and practitioner communities.

*Funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada and managed by the Singapore Internet Research Centre of Nanyang Technological University of Singapore;

**Here is a link to my review notes used in the review: The Impact of Research on Development Policy and Practice: An Annotated Bibliography 

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