Thursday, 6 December 2012

Trying to get research into use? Start by making users an integral part of the research design process

By Abby Mulhall

I was recently chatting to Barbara Adolph, a Principal Researcher at IIED, about 'how to get research into use' and we touched on the way that research is commissioned and designed. This led us to talk about our days at the International Centre for development-oriented Research in Agriculture (ICRA), a wonderful organisation that has at its heart the concept of soft systems thinking to design and deliver client-oriented research and development programmes.

What's compelling about ICRA's approach is that it promotes the integration of stakeholder concerns, knowledge, action and learning around a theme of mutual interest. It is about defining the problem with the research users, whoever they were - not just farmers, but researchers, entrepreneurs, journalists, environmentalists - whoever is part of the 'innovation system' that affects research uptake and use.

Defining the research agenda: power and participation

A common thread running through many discussions and debates about research communication (or uptake or use or the many other seemingly interchangeable terms used to define the process of making research available, accessible, useful and useable) is power and participation. While the communication part of research use is essential, there are many other actors, processes and systems that affect the ultimate use of research. Not to mention its availability and accessibility.

Power relations and participation in the research itself, or more importantly in the initial definition of the problem and research design cannot be ignored. There are many examples of research programmes testing more innovative ways of communicating research and some that move further, by using communication as the process for achieving social change (see Nicholas Benequista's and Joanna Wheeler's article in this Bulletin; Jethro Petitt et al in Development in Practice or Sally Theobold et al in Health Research Policy and Systems).

But I think there is a need to re-think how we design development research:
  • Who is it really for? 
  • Who should determine the agenda? 
  • Who should quality assure the results (where the intended users are quite often the poor)?
Liz Carlile's blog in this series touched on a similar point - that we supply knowledge and information on our terms in response to a global conversation rather than local demand. Too often the design of the research programme is done in isolation of the different intended users of the research. They tend to be brought in once the funder has approved the design. Too often researchers have to respond to the policies and processes set by the funder, with little or no time to really reflect, learn and engage in the process of defining the research problem and identifying a solution.

Of course there are exceptions and one of the best examples I know about is CNRS, a Bangladeshi NGO that has worked extensively on natural resources management. Its strength is in inclusive participation and giving voice to a wide range of stakeholders who also have a say in the research agenda. The concept of Citizen Jury, an approach being used to democratise agricultural research, is another excellent example. 

Towards innovation systems thinking

DFID's Research into Use programme is an example of why we need to plan for uptake. Initially designed to get promising technologies from DFID's renewable natural resources programme into use, its learning in developing processes for doing this is extremely valuable.The process is partly about 'knowledge brokering', which is currently very topical and increasingly valued as an essential part of the system (see Catherine Fisher's Spectrum of Intermediary and Brokering functions in the Bulletin's introduction (PDF).

RIU goes a step further and tests an innovation systems approach (see Putting Research into Use: Lessons from contested visions of innovations) - recognising a need for a broader range of brokering tasks to support coordinated action in networks that are connected to innovation, policy and development processes.

In the Bulletin, Klerkx et al write 'research uptake is important, and knowledge brokering is an essential function, but should be accompanied by or integrated within the function of innovation brokering, which more broadly focuses on rearranging all technical, social and institutional relationships needed for innovation and change.Such a broad focus can contribute to creating an enabling environment for effective policy formulation and implementation, development and innovation'. I am a fan of the innovations systems approach to research uptake - though some would question how it addresses power and participation.

On this very topical issue of research communication, uptake and brokering - a new call for abstracts has just been launched - Driving Research Uptake through research brokering.

Abby Mulhall is Research Uptake Manager at the UK Department for International Development (DFID). We are grateful for her contribution to the Bulletin as a peer reviewer. This blog represents the author's views - not those of DFID.

More blogs on the IDS Bulletin New Roles for Communication in Development? 

  • Supply and demand in evidence-informed policy - in pictures! (By Kirsty Newman)
  • Three things that stop development organisations being agents of change (By Liz Carlile)
  • Why researchers should consider a new model for engagement (By Ajoy Datta)
  • An interview with Blane Harvey, co-editor of New Roles for Communication in Development?
  • Redefining the researcher, and the research (By Zachary Patterson)
  • Challenges in communicating co-constructed knowledge to influence policy (By Fran Seballos)
  • How are the roles of researchers and research communicators changing? (By Tessa Lewin)