Knowing your audience

How good are you at research uptake? New tool helps assess capacity.

By 5 May 2015

Whose capacity?

Developing capacity of decision makers and knowledge brokers to use and demand research has been recognised as strategy to support research uptake. However, there has been less attention on developing the capacity of researchers themselves. Their role is critical to informing debate, engaging with decisionmakers and ultimately influencing policy. For Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA), the role of researchers is central to our uptake strategy.

Need to understand strengths and experience

In the initial stages of LANSA, before attempting to strengthen our capacity to deliver research uptake, we needed an agreed understanding of our strengths and experience. I wanted to start a conversation with researchers around uptake, and to enable research teams to assess their own capacity. Having scouted around I couldn’t find a tool to help us with this. But I did find that Andrew Clappison and his colleagues at CommsConsult had done something interesting with their consortium partners in a project funded by the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). I asked Andrew to adapt their tool for LANSA.

Using the newly developed tool, alongside our research uptake country leads, I co-facilitated sessions with partners in India (MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, MSSRF), Bangladesh (BRAC – Research and Evaluation Division) and Pakistan (Collective for Social Science Research, CSSR). The tool is run as a half day workshop, and includes: a questionnaire to assess attitudes to research uptake; a group exercise to get researchers thinking about strategies beyond dissemination; and an exercise involving the selection of statements that help to assess the team’s capability level in four areas (strategy, stakeholder engagement, communications and policy).

The exercises enabled researchers to share their experiences, and teams to identify and agree the areas they wanted to develop. See Samar Zuberi’s account about CSSR capitalised on the outcomes of their team’s session.

High levels of influence amongst partners

As the research uptake manager for LANSA, based at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, I had underestimated our South Asian partners’ capacity in research uptake. MSSRF and BRAC are well known in their respective countries. As a measure of their influence MSSRF hosted a visit from the President of India the same week we ran the assessment, and BRAC was recently voted the most effective global NGO! The Collective for Social Science Research (CSSR) in Pakistan is a much younger organisation than the other partners, and I assumed that their relative youth and size would make them a beneficiary of other organisations’ rich experience. However, I discovered that CSSR researchers had built considerable credibility with decision makers, over their relatively short life. Having built a reputation in the effectiveness of social protection programmes, one of their lead researchers had been invited to help design a government programme. It was clear we all have lots to share and learn, and we have a strong base on which to build.

So what did we find out?

One of the most valuable aspects of the assessment for me was being able to find out and understand genuine reservations about research uptake. A number of academics were concerned over the possible ‘dumbing down’ of research when writing for non-academic audiences. Some researchers felt that research uptake is time consuming and not their responsibility, while others were natural communicators and happy to engage with end-users and the policy environment. One researcher was concerned that engaging with government would ‘impact the neutrality of the research’. Getting these issues out in the open allowed us the opportunity to discuss them and offer alternative perspectives.

What did we get out of it?

Apart from assessing capacity, I found there were other practical benefits from these sessions. Three important benefits were:

  • Increased understanding between researchers and research uptake staff about their priorities and perspectives;
  • Agreement on joint actions to develop team capacity. For example, one team agreed to meet regularly to monitor policy context. Another team agreed to organise a platform to facilitate exchange between agriculture and nutrition stakeholders. And finally,
  • Identification of research uptake champions amongst senior researchers. This was particularly helpful for the research uptake country leads when it came to following through on agreed actions.

Assess your research team’s capacity

The tool is available on LANSA’s website for other research teams to use. Apart from the specially designed cards (for you to print or photocopy) and the facilitation guide, the only other ingredient you need is a facilitator. Ideally this would be someone with knowledge of research uptake, so they can facilitate discussion and provide alternative perspectives.

Do let us know what you think of the exercise by adding a comment on LANSA’s website? And please share your experiences of using the tool. Tell us what you learnt and what you would do differently. If you want to share your experiences and insights more fully, please contact info@ResearchToAction to propose an article – we’re always happy to use the platform to share learning across both research disciplines and across the world!