When the outcome of a project is assessed after its completion, the common voices generally heard are – “we could have done better engaging more policy makers”, “our choices for stakeholders were not appropriate”, “we have missed out some important stakeholders during our dissemination programme”, “if we had some more time, we would certainly have requested the Ministry Secretary to write a foreword in our final research report”.
These remarks are not uncommon and mostly expected, especially in light of research uptake activities being more ‘reactive’ than being ‘proactive’. Another major problem is the understanding that research uptake is generally undertaken once the research is completed and ready for dissemination. This misguided notion has resulted in research uptake to be seen just as an activity rather than an entire science.
Research Uptake (RU) should start from the beginning itself – right from the proposal development stage with RU as one of the ‘line items’ for budgeting. Yes, though funding agencies might be keen to keep communications and RU as an administrative cost and not a separate line item, organisations should be smart and bold enough to make the business case for RU as an important factor for the success of the research programme.
The integration of RU from the beginning of a programme itself can offer various advantages. RU professionals would be internalising the aims and objectives of the study, and therefore would be more eager to be a part of the programme. Secondly, with stakeholder mapping tools, the identification and needs assessment of the stakeholders would be done much more effectively. Likewise, the engagement of the policy makers from the beginning itself will ensure that those officials are morally obliged to support the project by participating in major events such as trainings, dissemination events, sharing opinions for policy briefs and foreword in the final reports – thus making advocacy for policy intervention even easier. Regular interaction with the researchers and RU officers will ensure that the different processes and reflections during the programme implementation would be well documented and shared with the variety of audiences – therefore building interest about the programme.
There is a Research Uptake Guide for DFID funded research programmes which is a useful toolkit for research uptake practitioners to apply the science during the course of implementation of the programmes through four components: stakeholder engagement, capacity building, communication and monitoring and evaluation. The RU checklist included in the guide is also helpful in terms of assessing how these four components could be embedded while implementing the programmes.
Easier said than done, implementing RU approaches, especially in the developing countries possess various challenges.
Fred Carden, in his book, Knowledge to Policy explains the difficulties faced by developing countries in terms of lack of intermediary institutions or the ‘knowledge brokers’ to carry the research findings forward up to the policy level thereby missing the mechanisms for policy linkage and other implementation challenges such as weak policy designs, weak monitoring and supervision mechanisms, ineffective administrative and managerial capacities. Carden also finds that there is lack of verifiable evidence creating a barrier for necessary influence. Interestingly, Carden talks about the pitfalls of bottom up approach to research programmes whereby the policy makers feel that the study is not ‘for them’ but for the beneficiaries at the grassroot level and thereby might not be motivated enough to support the research during the course of its design or implementation. Other obstacles highlighted by Carden include the lack of proper leadership and capacity of policy makers to understand and the take the research agenda forward; the instability of decision making institutions to make long term decisions and play a constructive role during the entire course of the project period; economic crises, political pressure, among others.
In another interesting article, Research uptake: what is it and how it can be measured?, Enrique Mendizabal, founder of On Think Tanks presents the critique of the conventional notion of research uptake where there is more focus on the ‘uptake’ of research highlighting the aspects of policy influence. Mendizabal opines that along with the uptake, there is also research ‘sidetake’ where studies can influence other fellow research communities as well as ‘downtake’ such as advocating communities through public health messages. Mendizabal in this effort focuses on the broader scope of research uptake. He considers that any replication or dismissal of a research is also research uptake considering the wider discussion/debate about the research agenda triggered.
What goes in is what comes out. So, if RU is embedded within the research programmes, there are higher chances that the programme outcomes would be better reflected and visible for its intended audience. This doesn’t discount though that the content is king and therefore, rigorous research methods need to be applied to ensure the success of the project. RU can only enhance the possibility of better visibility and reach of the project and cannot guarantee the success of the project as it is determined by a whole range of many other factors. As Mendizabal says, research uptake could sometimes be “just a matter of luck”.