Rethinking research to respond to global challenges

Published on 29 April 2020

Peter Taylor

Acting Director

Research underpins so many of our collective efforts to address major global challenges, even though its contribution is often unseen or under-acknowledged. In the global onslaught of Covid-19, this situation is changing.

We are seeing much more public appreciation of the vital importance of evidence, with scientific advisors appearing alongside political leaders and talking about the need for quality data, for rigorous analysis, and for balanced and informed interpretation of different kinds of evidence. We are also witnessing the desire by policy makers and citizens alike to use evidence in practical ways – to inform the policies and decisions that will help us cope and address the huge, complex challenges now affecting us all.

Research that delivers real benefits to communities

Against this backdrop, IDS recently hosted the seminar ‘Research uptake: How do funders see its future’ as part of the Evidence into Policy and Practice series. It posed the question of  how to ensure that research delivers real benefits to communities in the face of shocks such as pandemics and challenges such as rising inequalities, changing climate and conflict and violence. This was due to be a face-to-face event as part of the Shaping Policy with Evidence course, now postponed until later in the year, and in the spirit of physical distancing happened online. Ultimately the seminar proved very timely as COVID-19 began to shape a new reality for the world.

We had a great panel including Norma Altshuler, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Maggie Gorman Vélez, International Development Research Centre; Pam Mason, Economic and Social Research Council; and Jonathan Breckon, Alliance for Useful Evidence who explored how they conceptualise evidence use; and what role they see for themselves moving forward in supporting evidence informed policy and practice, particularly in lower- and middle-income countries and in responding to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Five sets of core ideas really stood out for me from the conversation:

1.  Research systems, including data systems, need to become stronger; everywhere.
Facing a universal challenge such as Covid-19 the capacity to generate and use evidence needs to be strengthened globally; and the ability to scale up solutions from research will always depend on the capacities in local contexts to use and apply evidence. As key actors within research systems, researchers need not only the academic knowledge to do good, credible research, but also need to learn and develop their abilities to communicate, and to hone their political skills to engage with governments who find themselves needing to balance multiple agendas, demands and needs from a variety of different interest groups. This learning requires mutual effort amongst peers to inform, motivate and inspire.

2. Wicked, complex problems and challenges can only be addressed through research that brings together multiple perspectives.
The current pandemic reinforces the reality that many global challenges are truly universal, affecting everyone, everywhere. Different kinds of knowledge, evidence and research are needed to help make progress when the magnitude of the problem is so great. The difficulties in responding to Covid-19 demonstrate especially the importance of social science research. As we observe how the actions of communities are central to tackling the spread of the disease, we realise that understanding these actions, and knowing how, when and why they can adapt and change with the support of the right policies and support. As Pam Mason reminded us in the seminar, this needs truly interdisciplinary approaches.

3. Researchers need to combine and integrate their approaches and methodologies according to the challenge and the context.
Some research is pressing, urgent and critical, and researchers may be challenged for “answering yesterday’s problems tomorrow”, as Jonathan Breckon put it in our seminar, because good research can take time. There’s real value in enlightenment through “slow thinking”, particularly when considering future scenarios that do not simply paper over the cracks in societal foundations, post-Covid-19. We are going to need such research. But there is also a need to get powerful evidence into use as soon as possible.

This may at times demand more “instrumental” research, which is really practical  – for example understanding how to ensure handwashing becomes habitual, or how to address the need for social distancing in locations where people live so closely packed together that it is almost impossible to achieve in practice. Strong research communication and engagement, targeted and driven by audience needs, also helps ensure that those who need data and evidence the most can access it, understand it, and use it.

4. Relationships are key to getting evidence into use.
These can be local, personal, international; between researchers and governments, public servants, politicians, the media, civil society organisations, communities – but they need to involve trust, and a shared valuing of research and evidence. Mutually respectful partnerships, including between researchers in the global North and the global South, help legitimise research because there’s an intentional effort to be inclusive, to be clear about who drives the research agenda, to acknowledge and say openly whose knowledge counts and why, and to engage and involve those in the research and its use who are closest to the problem itself. Ultimately it is often relationships that make a difference when achieving impact – moving from simply talking about change to transformations taking place.

5. Funders play a critical role in helping generate interdisciplinary, contextually-appropriate evidence and learning.
Our panellists highlighted several ways in which funders can support research uptake and use:

  • Be flexible, supportive, engage with researchers in ways that allow them to own the research and the evidence, to ground the work solidly in the realities of their own contexts, and help them to be connected to local actors on the ground.
  • Help facilitate global access to local knowledge. As Maggie Gorman Velez reminded us in the seminar, there is a wealth of research, evidence and data already available throughout lower- and middle-income countries, and it has been insufficiently tapped into globally. Research users have a tendency to get their evidence from the “usual suspects”.
  • Acknowledge that monitoring and demonstrating impact of research is difficult. Many funders want to measure impact, but most societal changes are not in the direct control of researchers. Norma Altshuler pointed out in the seminar that we may learn most by looking across, and learning from, the outcomes from multiple projects rather than trying to identify the impact from a single intervention. Understanding impact may be more productive if we look for broader changes making significant differences in peoples’ lives – for example in the ways government systems operate – and seek to understand the ways in which research has contributed to these changes.
  • Support research efforts that bring different research disciplines and approaches together, especially research that promotes learning how to learn – about what’s important to communities and to governments and why; and which helps researchers and their partners to communicate and share this learning as widely as possible. If funders really want to “do the right thing”, they should prioritise and nourish strong, equitable and inclusive research relationships.
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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