This is the second half of Valerie Traore’s round up of the TTI E-forum 2015. Read part one here.
Despite the fact that the question was framed to highlight how think tanks maintain impartiality, most respondents have raised another crucial question: is there such a thing as impartiality? And if there is, should think tanks even aspire to it given that public policy itself is NOT impartial. Priyanthi Fernando, Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) in Sri Lanka put this very clearly when she said “In the realm of idea generation and policy influence, there is no real ‘impartiality’ or ‘objectivity’ and research quality is not about trying to achieve this ‘ideal’. Rather it is about making explicit the researcher’s framework of analysis, and ensuring that the research findings are triangulated and verifiable, and that the analysis is consistent and coherent. “
Credibility however is something that all think tanks can focus on ensuring. María Elena Rivera, Program Coordinator at Fundaungo, El Salvador argues that “assuring research quality, including primary information, methods, sources, etc. is one of the main checks that will guarantee objectivity and credibility.”
Yet, finding common ground around the issue of objectivity remains one of the biggest challenges Think Tanks face. Many, including Katerine Saravia of ARU Foundation in Bolivia, mention rigour, methodology, debate and criticism as ways to address the challenges of objectivity, but, important as this may be to actual quality, are those really the measures policy makers use to assess quality? Are they not more focused on the credibility of the institution? This is something that Rodulio Perdomo and Mauricio Diaz Burdett from FOSDEH in Hondura have seen and made a point to address. Their organization’s efforts to “install plural dialogues, covering the entire ideological spectrum, with base organizations leaders, workers, employers, government and international organizations, has taken out the ideological profile and instead begins to raise the idea of being a serious organization not listed with capitalism or communism, interested in meeting all perspectives and approaches on problems.” This has helped to engage policy makers while being seen as an objective actor.
This is something that Pierre Jacquet of the Global Development Network also stresses; that “the most powerful one -strategy for influencing- is to build reputation across the whole range of stakeholders (and not only academic stakeholders) and across major policy issues. This requires continuity and time. The target audience cannot be restricted to other academics, nor to policy-makers. Keeping a multiple and balanced audience (for written research output as well as for meetings), in itself, is a powerful approach toward higher quality. My premise is that only a kind of work that speaks to the four dimensions of quality mentioned above – conceptual quality, analytical quality, technical quality, and pertinence- will allow to build such a reputation over time, and to validate, ex-post, our common belief on the social utility of good social sciences research.”
Effective collaboration, whether opportunistic or spontaneous depends on a few factors. One is, as Vanesa Weyrauch from Politics&Ideas puts it, a “true commitment to understanding your partner and the real willingness to share something valuable.” Second, which Priyanthi offers, is a “strategic and shared purpose, and third which Bitrina Diyamett stresses ”it must be driven by a true need for each other” such that each partner respects what the other is bringing to the table (and not just financial resources).
Despite being ‘not an option, but a must” as Bitrina puts it, there are significant challenges to effective collaboration, not the least of which is the competition for funding between institutions, which takes them away from thinking about how they can work together best. That competition for resources also plays out in the balance (or imbalance) in the relationship between the stakeholder with the largest pocket and others who may have fewer available resources.
One way to deal with these challenges, that Carmen Ortiz and Olga Loarca from ASIES in Guatemala offer, is increasing the opportunities for think tanks to exchange; “it is only when institutions meet each other and have exchanged views on topics they want a specific collaboration.”
On Time Management
One key take away from contributions to this question is that incentives and especially non-monetary incentives are a good way to foster greater engagement from researchers towards research quality. Carmen and Olga share some specific tactics that have worked. These are mainly public recognition of the researcher through putting their names on publications, interacting directly with the media and policy makers, and having an institutional structure that allows space for researchers to grow in their positions.
As Dr. Ransford Gyampo from IEA Ghana points out, “Think tanks need funds to meet their immediate goals. Nevertheless, the quest for a longer-term policy oriented research agenda must not be sacrificed.” And not sacrificing the organizational goals is a constant challenge in a context where “short-term consultancies and/or offers of certain certificates for short term-training in different aspects do help the think tanks involved to remain buoyant in the short-term but do undermine the think tanks objectivity and policy relevance. “ as Prof. Winstons Muhwezi from ACODE in Uganda reinforces.
How can think tanks find balance between longer-term, flexible approaches and shorter-term solutions to resource mobilization, whilst still assuring the quality of their research? IEP in Peru has managed to find its balance by using different products. One of these, which Roxana Barrantes describes, is the “editorial fund for a sustainable business that not only produces high-quality research work from researchers who work at the IEP, but that also publishes other authors, some who have produced books in other languages, in order to offer a varied set of publications (still all related to the social sciences and humanities) to build a pool of audiences. Creating an editorial fund that can provide us with funds that will help sustain independent research during times of hard economic conditions, something we are vulnerable to, and scarcity of funding, is crucial for keeping quality academic research. “
On capacity building
A host of different skills sets have been proposed through the discussion, including scientific and technical skills, as well as contextual knowledge of the world. What was also stressed was the need for continuous training, rolling evaluations of personnel as well as the need to mentor young and less experienced researchers. Another key element, with which Maria Elena Rivera concluded the e-forum, is the value of the networks that the institution has developed over time.
It is through the emergence of a network, or indeed a community of practice, that the TTI Exchange 2015 will give think tanks the space to continue to build on their successes whilst learning from things that have worked less well; creating opportunities for greater collaborations; sharing tactics for greater time management in the midst of many demands; and overall increasing research quality for greater impact.