Is it time to stop talking about research uptake?

Published on 23 March 2017

Image of James Georgalakis

James Georgalakis

Director of Communications and Impact

Research is essential for progressive development but uptake may be a misleading way to describe its reach and impact.

I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to address the Directors meeting of the European Association of Development Institutes (EADI) this week in Bonn. My trip got off to a bad start when I bemoaned the UK’s Brexit vote to my taxi driver – thinking that in Germany I was on safe ground – only to discover he was a Greek and was a huge admirer of the Brexiteers (and of course loathes Merkel). Luckily I managed to reassure him that as a half Greek I understood his country’s pain (I really do) and this antipathy toward the EU project. He did not throw me out his cab and we parted great Hellas buddies.

Things got better once at the EADI meeting. We were discussing the challenges around evidence informed development in relation to the 2030 agenda. Inevitably the conversation turned to BREXIT, Trump and rise of the right across Europe, concerns around a post-truth climate, fake news and distrust of experts. There were mixed views amongst the gathered Europeans on all this but we could all agree that in development, decisions are likely to be pragmatic and shaped by their political and institutional circumstances rather than rational and determined by research.

I mainly focused on the risks of treating research uptake as a largely technical issue. As I have written many times now, even when you have solid knowledge sharing platforms, innovative approaches to communicating research and networks and partnerships for the sharing of learning, knowledge exchange and research impact is still at the mercy of politics. We say that we want knowledge to be: shared, exchanged, mobilised, translated, disseminated, managed, up-taken, communicated or transferred. But as Robert Chambers famously put it – we need to consider ‘whose knowledge counts’ and why. Formal power-structures, underlying relationships, social norms and culture all affect how knowledge is generated, understood and used. Even access to research data and development learning is hugely uneven – some would say political.

As well as considering these political dimensions we also need to think hard about the social dimensions of knowledge exchange and learning. Of course knowledge sharing requires effective synthesis and dissemination products. However, as well as effective communications we should not discount the central importance of the “policy continuum” which brings together researchers with development agencies, policy actors and NGO field staff. Barriers to knowledge uptake are often overcome by creating new networks that included in their membership key individuals and individual professional relationships.

Our panel was asked if it really was valid to talk about ‘research uptake’. It was suggested that this language places all the emphasis on the supply of knowledge and then its use by development actors when in fact the research to policy space is far more opaque than that. This question gets to the heart of whether you see development research ‘as development’ or ‘for development’. It also suggests that we need to decide if research impacts are broadly related to learning, changing evidence use behaviours (in a good way) and forging new connections and relationships, or more narrowly related to instrumental impacts on policy and practice. In truth it can be all of these but instrumental impacts will always be difficult to attribute to specific research studies as opposed to wider movements and critical bodies of knowledge.

I suggested to the meeting that perhaps it is time to drop the term research uptake altogether. Given that even the term ‘evidence based’ policy is going out of fashion and sensible people now seem to refer to ‘evidence informed’ policy there does seem to be a shift. I must have made the point more forcibly than I meant to because for the rest of the day every time delegates uttered the words ‘research uptake’ in my vicinity they turned to me and apologised!

Of course the risk is that as aid spending comes under further scrutiny, promoting a more nuanced understanding of how change happens could accelerate a decline in public and political support for rigorous social science for development. Even I find it irritating when academic colleagues try to explain that everything is just very complex – so just imagine how it makes a government Minister or journalist feel.

There is no doubt that the growing understanding of the complexity and interconnectedness of the world is paradoxically placing ever-greater pressure on scientists and development agencies to ‘have the answer’ and to respond more effectively to policy agendas in ways that demonstrate their tangible impact. The unintended consequences of results frameworks, and impact agendas can at times be to squeeze out reflective learning in implementing organisations. At its most extreme this critique of the results agenda describes the “Dead Hand of the results framework.” The argument goes amongst some development scholars that too much emphasis on planning for impact and results is at odds with dynamic rural and urban environments.

I believe research institutions have a crucial role to play in strengthening the links between research, policy and practice as part of the 2030 agenda. We need mechanisms to identify and mobilise critical bodies of knowledge in support of the goals. We need to come to terms with the mobilisation of knowledge as a social and political process not just a technical one. This means investing in the co-production of research, engaging with potential research users from the start as well as raising our game in terms of communicating with non-academic audiences and increasing the availability and accessibility of research data. And finally, donors, research organisations, governments and development agencies need to work together to manage the tension between the aid effectiveness, results based agenda and an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

As for my angry (but rather inspiring) Greek taxi driver – If I’d tried to explain to him the concept of research uptake he would have laughed his head off and told me it’s all about power and politics – and he’d be absolutely right.

Many of these issues are covered in: The Social Realities of Knowledge for Development. Download for free.