Saturday, 1 September 2018

Research for (Policy) Impact

Demonstrating policy impact of research is becoming increasingly important. In countries like the UK, the Research Excellence Framework ensures that incentives are tied to demonstrating impact. While we aren't there yet in India, spaces such as IIHS and CPR India are increasingly contributing to conversations at the research-policy interface.

Podcast on research impact

In this context, I enjoyed listening to ANU's recent Policy Forum Podcast episode on policy impact, which touches upon research impact, questioning one's motives for doing research, and how to engage in meaningful research despite the neoliberalisation of higher education. Prof Mark Reed, Professor of Social Innovation at Newcastle University and a research impact wiz, talks of his experiences of trying to ‘make a difference’. Few things from the podcast that really spoke to me:
  • Need more thought at proposal writing stages to consider the dangers of cobbling together ill-suited research/policy/practice partners to bid for trans- and inter-disciplinary research initiatives
  • Need more training on doing interdisciplinary research that often calls for working with people with different worldviews, methodological leanings, and crucially, different motivations
  • Doing a rapid stakeholder mapping to discover and forge new, non-research partnerships is useful ongoing exercise for researchers
  • Question your motives and ability to nurture relationships over time: "If you want to make a difference, you have to be in this for the long game. This (research impact) is fundamentally about relationships and it has to be two-way...there has to be humility in these relationships."

Two papers on developing the skills, space for research impact 

Also read two interesting articles on research impact and being an engaged, impactful researcher (thanks Georgina Cundill for the recommendation!):
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) Building optimism at the environmental science-policy-practice interface through the study of bright spots in Nature Communications
Evans and Cvitanovic (2018) An introduction to achieving policy impact for early career researchers in Palgrave Communications (here's a blog post based on the paper)
Cvitanovic and Hobday (2018) call for changing the terminology of 'gaps' across the science–policy–practice interfaces to a focus on 'bright spots'. This is something that has struck me in climate change adaptation research as well where there is a focus on identifying, enumerating and finding solutions to 'adaptation barriers'. Changing the narrative on this means finding leverage points and entry spaces where one learns from success AND failure instead of success stories OR examples of failure. 

The second paper refreshingly argues that being honest and humble researchers is key for impact. In my experience, humility and honesty are critical to strong, effective and inclusive research teams. I've discussed the role of empathy in scenario planning exercises and find that creating a conducive environment as a first step of impactful research is still an under-acknowledged aspect of interdisciplinary work.

The two papers also discuss the need for understanding policy in practice before being able to influence it. This is critical, especially in countries such as India, where a lot of policy influencing is hidden and policy conversations and spaces are often closed off. During my PhD, being a young female researcher who had to engage with all-male irrigation department officials, was a challenging and sometimes dangerous part of data collection. I regularly faced inappropriate invitations to visit their homes, and although unofficial conversations would have helped building a rapport so crucial for policy impact, my gender and age sharply shaped my ability and experience to nurture beyond-research relationships. 

I think the messiness and informal nature of policy making is something researchers don't appreciate fully. I look forward to reading (or perhaps writing?!) more about it, especially experiences of trying to achieve research impact in the Global South (where, I have a hunch things are messier and more closed off but that might just be a hunch). 


My own experience of research impact

In a bid to start thinking of making my own research more 'impact-friendly', earlier this year I helped collate eight farmer stories documenting bottom-up, policy-facing solutions in climate change adaptation in the agriculture sector in South India.

We collected these stories of change where farmers facing significant hardship such as growing water scarcity, small landholding, and market fluctuations have overcome them through a mix of personal innovation and ingenuity, and institutional support.

We consciously decided not to publish a paper from it and instead launched a booklet in English and Kannada (the local language) and invited the farmers to speak about their experiences at the launch. Having government and civil society representatives at the launch (with whom we had built relationships over the past few years of our wider research project) made the event more meaningful. We've already had had interest from popular media (Time of IndiaIndiaSpend, Business Standard covered our work) and NGOs beyond the region have ordered the open access booklet to learn from these farmer stories. Small steps, but important nonetheless. 

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