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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Producing meaningful knowledge: The missing piece in the influence agenda

As you may have noticed, my last blogs have been devoted to the work of researchers who want to impact policy or social change more broadly. The latest series has focused on frameworks for thinking about how research related to the policy problem we face, as a first step to thinking about research projects. I have written about how to plan a research project, the habits of researchers and also a critique on the concept of “Evidence Based Policy”.

These blogs reflect the process of shaping a new initiative within Politics and Ideas to focus more deeply on how we produce knowledge, not only how we communicate and disseminate it for impact. In this blog I will outline, why this is a key aspect of our work on both research and capacity building and delineating some of the key aspects of what a line of work on ‘producing meaningful knowledge’ would look like.

What the influence agenda is all about

In the last years there is a growing interest among scholars and practitioners on how research can have a wider impact on society, this body “Impact Agenda”. This agenda has focused around four key areas, not totally independent and that overlap.

–        There has been a growing interest on the ‘use of research’. Probably influenced highly by Carol Weiss’s seminal work, many researchers have focused on understanding who uses research and for what purposes. The concepts of ‘research uptake’ is a direct result of this line of thought. Researchers focus primarily on the ‘others’, the policymakers, the civil society activists, etc, and how they use their research.

–        Of course, the concept of ‘Evidence-Based Policy’ has taken a central stage in the impact agenda. However, there is no clear answer about what it really means. Here it is also about the extent to which a policy is based on evidence, although, there are many diverse interpretations of what evidence is. This line of work has maybe also popularized the concept of the ‘gap’ between researchers and policymakers, a gap that needs to be bridged, and as such the other concepts of ‘knowledge brokers’ and ‘intermediaries’ has emerged. Many have migrated from the ‘Evidence-Based Policy’ to ‘Evidence Informed Policy Making’ to reflect a more complex setting were policy does not depend only on evidence.

–        The third line of interest among researchers is that of measuring influence. In a context where researchers are expected to influence policy, or to connect more broadly with society, they have become interested in which are the indicators to measure such impact. This line of work is focused primarily on the metrics, of citations, mentions, and other ways of complimenting the mechanisms already in place in academia, primarily citations. It is, however, difficult to imagine meaningful metrics when researchers tend to have little understanding of the policy arena where they participate. In this line, there is still large room for improvement and innovation; initiatives like online courses from P&I and new methodologies like the one developed by Rimisp shared at P&I point in that direction.

–        As a result, the fourth major focus of the agenda has been on communication and dissemination.  Mostly among practitioners or applied researchers, there is an interest on how researchers should communicate their findings to engage with a wider audience and get their points across. Here there is also need to re-think focus and direction as argued at P&I some while ago.

What the impact agenda is lacking

Within this agenda, what is missing is how knowledge is being produced, and how this affects policy influence capacity (and vicecersa). The approaches taken so far have strengthened the perception that there is a linear process that starts with the production of research, the communication and dissemination and its impact on society. This explains the focus on the later aspects of this process, instead of on the first: how knowledge is currently being produced, including how research agendas are defined and developed. Although there is an academic discussion on the modes of knowledge production inspired primarily by Gibbons work, it has permeated very little the debate of the Influence agenda. Very little is discussed about what type of research is being produced, how it is defined and developed, and if it is meaningful for the policy process. Furthermore, some may consider that the production of knowledge is something intrinsic to each discipline. This is probably the reason why researchers have done very little to explore the knowledge production in itself. There is scarce knowledge on both the theory of knowledge production and on the practices that researchers carry out to produce knowledge. Looking into that direction would serve the purpose not only of enriching the Influence Agenda, but also to help researchers improve and be more reflective on their own research projects so that they can better feed into policymaking ones.

What we propose

At Politics and Ideas we would like to help researchers enhance their capacities to produce more relevant, high quality research that can consequently better inform policy processes. We acknowledge that not all research is meant to inform policy, and it is irresponsible to ask all researchers to inform policy. But if informing policies is at the core of the researcher’s objectives, and/or of a research organisation, then researchers might develop other skills. They must become wiser not only to communicate their research and findings but to effectively plan, frame and carry out research projects that can interact with policy processes, in the very diverse ways in which this is possible.

I have worked on doing research for policy, and have worked with many other researchers in initiatives to inform policy. Some of them have been successful, but of course many other failed. I think that in those occasions if we had known better mechanisms to understand the policy process, the actors involved, and how to frame research with much clearer objectives, we would then had had better chances of really informing policy.

This is why, in 2015 we look forward to developing a program to learn with other researchers about how to develop policy relevant research agendas as well as conduct better research that can inform policymaking processes. Some of the key aspects we hope to cover include:

–        Overviewing existing literature with a practical approach.  There is quite some research carried out on the links between research and policy. What is critical is to review it with lenses of practice. What can we learn from this literature to change how we concretely carry out research?

–        Clarifying concepts. Although we talk freely about the links between research and policy, these general terms are umbrellas that may include a variety of very different concepts. For example, the distinction between research, data, indicators, evidence, and the other products that emerge in the knowledge production process are unclear. It would be wise for research to have a more detailed understanding of these concepts.

–        Developing tools to explore the context. One of the overwhelming conclusions of many research carried out on in relation to policy, development and the impact of research is of the relevance of the context. Despite this, as researchers we learn very little about how to understand it and how to decide which are the critical aspects of this context that are relevant in each case.

–        Exploring frameworks and methods. As we understand the context better, it will be also critical to have an array of possible methods for research to use and to understand the potentials and limitations of each. These may respond to policymakers´ needs and priorities, instances and specific windows of opportunity within public policies, potential uses by different levels of policymakers, etc.

–        Envisioning potential policy influence more strategically. As argued by Vanesa Weyrauch from P&I we need to become more sophisticated when we talk about evidence informing policy. We need to develop a more complex taxonomy of what we mean by each component; for example, what type of “knowledge” is useful for policy? Are there sorts of evidence that are more prone to be used in a specific policy moment or by a particular profile of policymaker? It is definitely not the same to offer research findings related to assessing a future policy problem than results of research that imply a large modification of a current policy. How do these options talk to political gains and citizen support?

–        Finally, as researchers we should also develop strategies and internal tests to validate or test our recommendations before they are put forward. What does our research conclude? How can we generalize these findings? Can we imagine what would our recommendations suggest?

Systematizing existing experience on this wide variety of topics is not an easy task. However, we believe there is large potential to co-produce this type of knowledge with researchers who have asked themselves these questions and have tried out ways to answer them. We will also need to produce some new concepts and methods, and test some assumptions that could lead to innovation.

We would also need to talk with and learn from policymakers. Their voice, needs, interests, current capacities and thinking should also inform our endeavor. We are already learning from them as we develop a course aimed at enhancing their capacities to use research, and this is certainly a promising field for cross-fertilization.

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