In Covid times, what can we learn from the Impact Initiative?

Published on 25 May 2021

Tim Conway, FCDO
Catherine Flynn, ESRC
Emily Hancock, ESRC
Pamela Mason, ESRC
Laura Savage, FCDO
Joseph Wales, FCDO

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on low- and middle-income countries, undoing many years of progress for the world’s poor. As they try to reverse these losses, governments, civil society, and international organisations urgently need good research to guide decisions and make the best possible use of shrinking budgets. Yet researchers, and those funding them, know that research relevance and quality is necessary but not always sufficient. For research to influence thinking and practice requires close engagement with would-be users and conscious attention to how findings and recommendations are framed and communicated.

As the primary sources of UK public funding for social science research on development, the Department for International Development (DFID) – now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have since the early 2000s worked together, pooling funding and their complementary strengths in programmes funding research on poverty, education and growth. We also funded the Impact Initiative to provide portfolio-level support to two of these joint programmes (the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation (JF), and Raising Learning Outcomes (RLO)) between 2015-2021. A recent roundtable with researcher funders from the UK, Canada and the US discussed the lessons from this experience, summarised in a recent report on knowledge brokering.

The experience of the Impact Initiative suggests there are benefits to a collective approach to research uptake. This approach – emphasising aggregation and triangulation of findings from thematically related research projects – contrasts with the default assumption that research uptake is primarily achieved by, and the responsibility of, individual projects (and their principal investigators in particular). Occasionally, well-focused research questions, creative and rigorous methods, striking findings, and good timing do allow individual ‘superstar’ projects to achieve significant impact.

More commonly however, consensus shifts in response to an accumulating body of related studies. This has generally been left to occur organically, through interaction and influence within discipline- or sector-specific research communities. By contrast, Impact Initiative events and ‘meso-level’ synthesis products deliberately set out to support this process by building networks and coalitions between researchers. Explicit attention to power relations that shape relationships, networks, and priorities within them has supported a more diverse understanding of what counts as impact and pathways and how these different forms of impact interact.

The Impact Initiative experience also reinforces the value of building portfolio-level impact support functions into research programmes from the design stage.  Established after most JF and RLO research projects had been commissioned, the Initiative made a virtue of necessity in drawing together, guiding and adding to trajectories of uptake that had started to emerge. In future, however, it would clearly be preferable that this function be in place from the start, to help individual projects articulate their strategies (and opportunistic tactics) for uptake and to catalyse connections and complementarities between projects.

This is particularly important when, as in the Joint Fund, the geographic, sectoral, and thematic scope of the portfolio is extremely broad, making after-the-event synthesis considerably harder. Start-to-end support to grants would make it easier to support all the researchers involved in each project – particularly Southern-based researchers – and their different potential connections to different audiences; and make it easier to track impact in terms of changing networks and discourse.

Finally, the experience of the Impact Initiative has raised some questions which we have still to fully answer.  One concerns the division of labour in research uptake between researchers, the research support function, and funders. In practice this has varied between projects and programmes and evolved over time.

All parties need to understand their roles and have capacity to work together effectively to tag in or out, or combine efforts, as requirements change over time. There is also a question about how narrowly or broadly programme-level brokering should frame synthesis of findings and recommendations. For example: if the brokering function seeks to distil lessons from three programme-funded projects on cash transfer programming, to what extent should these synthesis products or events focus primarily on comparing and contrasting the findings of the three projects, and to what extent should it locate all three within a wider literature, referring to other contemporary research from outside the programme?

Covid-19 has simultaneously increased the need for applied research relevant to the needs of the poor in poor countries, and dramatically reduced the funds available for such research. Researchers and research funders now urgently need to achieve more, with considerably less. Understanding what works in brokering research – what works at the portfolio level to support the synthesis, distillation, packaging and communication of research and build effective networks for longer-term influence – should help us with this. The work on the Impact Initiative, capped by this report, is extremely helpful to this.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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