Consider influence before doing the research
[Editor’s note: This post stems from a rich conversation about how research can have an impact with Roger Harris while sharing our respective chapters for an upcoming book on Information Technologies and its impact. He shares an initial literature review on the issue.]
The academic sphere is still closed: most researchers’ main audience is their peers and mentors. Reaching out to a wider public is, for the most part, not a priority. As a result, the education researchers receive is focused on fitting into the academic world: preparing a good literature review, having a figurative conversation with the main authors in the field, and writing in academic formats and tones. Carrying out work that seeks to influence the world outside the academic realm, however, requires a much broader perspective.
While discussing this with Roger, we were able to sketch three ways to look at the work of carrying out research for policy influence. The graph (see below) sketches three alternative timelines for a research project’s life cycle. The first option is to see it as a linear progress: the research is carried out first and then communicated, hoping some of it sticks. This is probably the most traditional way of carrying out research: the majority of a project’s time is devoted to doing research, and a shorter time is allocated to dissemination and outreach.
In the second perspective, activities for communications and influence are considered as relevant as the research activities and are given more time in a project’s life. This would entail having a stronger and more comprehensive strategy, but that is still carried out after the research is completed. Both scenarios assume that the researchers themselves are able to ask the right questions and can come up with good ideas from their desks and minds.
A third scenario, and the one I am most interested in exploring, is one where researchers are able to analyze the political and policy context before the actual research takes place. This means gaining as much knowledge as possible on the political context and the policy process where this research could later be used.
What would this third scenario entail?
Choosing research questions based on the wider policy making scenario. I have often encountered researchers who plan projects based on existing literature more than in real-life problems. As E. Mendizabal has suggested, ‘research questions are not the same as policy questions’. The challenge is to understand the context well enough to connect them in practice.
Employing methods relevant and consistent with the question and the context. A main aspect of good research is to choose the best available method. In the context of policy, it must also be noted that these methods have a political weight. While in some contexts, a participatory or ethnographic approach might be perceived as light or non-conclusive, it might be well received in other contexts. Similarly, an impact evaluation might be perceived as too technocratic in some settings, but convincing in others. Methods should not be chosen politically, but researchers would benefit from knowing their political implications.
Developing the ability to have the same academic curiosity not only for the specific research question but also for the broader policy debate. Usually researchers focus only on their field; however, to influence policy it is also important to be curious about the decision-making processes, how research is valued and perceived and the researcher’s own role in the policy scenario.
In upcoming posts I will explore more ideas on how to plan and strategize a research project to inform policy from the onset, its challenges and risks.