What can we learn from Southern researchers about increasing research uptake?

23rd February 2015
Cheryl Brown highlights how researchers in developing countries are seeing their research used by policymakers and what lessons can be drawn from this for researchers worldwide.

Insufficient access to journals and data, lack of funding for research and limited opportunities to interact with other researchers are just a few of the challenges that researchers in developing countries face and which are well-understood by those who work closely with them. Saleemul Huq and Clare Stott have written about the problems researchers in Bangladesh experience in being published in international peer-reviewed journals and Sarah Cummings highlights how under-represented Southern researchers are in development journals as authors and editorial board members.

Given these challenges, it would be easy to assume that Southern research has limited impact on policy and the lives of poor people. However, through its monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities GDNet (a DFID-funded programme from the Global Development Network that was dedicated to raising the profile of Southern research) uncovered many instances of local researchers witnessing dramatic and swift responses to their research findings. Working with their M&E advisor, Itad, and using a process adapted from the Most Significant Change technique, GDNet developed a set of cases of Southern Research Into Use. From analysing these, it became clear that there are some success factors or approaches that researchers can adopt, which will increase the likelihood of their research being used, including:

Demand for research from the start. Researchers tended to be investigating issues in which policymakers were already interested or about which they had even explicitly requested information.

New or unusual findings and a rigorous evidence-base where it had been previously lacking. Findings that are counter-intuitive or surprising attract attention and when they are supported by good quality data, can have an impact on policy.

Findings are presented with a policymaker in mind: writing specific and practical policy recommendations, proposing innovative solutions and making an economic argument for a recommendation that is well-supported by evidence.

Researchers spend time communicating with the beneficiaries: In one example, the researchers communicated the findings to the research subjects first, and when parliamentarians realised how well informed the people were, they were pushed to take action.

The researcher, or their intermediary, is connected to, and respected by, the government and seen as neutral: In some cases this required the researchers to use their funder or international partner organisation to communicate the findings to policymakers; in other cases isolated researchers have benefited from joining networks.

Being opportunistic and flexible with communications: Visual documentary evidence (photos and videos, supported by reliable data) proved to be particularly effective for attracting the attention of influential people or to gain media coverage in more than one case, especially when it was on an emotive topic such as child labour.

Engaging funders and those responsible for policy-making from the outset of the research: Many of the cases involved key decision-makers throughout the research process and in more than one case, policymakers contributed research data themselves, which presented opportunities for discussion.

These Critical Success Factors represent good practice in research uptake that Northern researchers could equally benefit from adopting. However, the reality is that many Southern researchers face significant barriers to implementing them. In all of GDNet’s cases of Research Into Use the researchers benefitted from one or more of GDNet’s services such as free access to online journals or research communication training. In its Legacy Document, GDNet strongly recommends that Southern researchers avail themselves of the services and opportunities that programmes such as INASP, Eldis and Gobeshona offer given the enabling influence they can have and that more of these programmes should be encouraged.