Building a research impact culture

By Louise Shaxson

Louise Shaxson (biography)

What sort of research culture underpins effective research impact on policy and practice change?

As part of a research program on inclusive economic growth in low-income countries, we commissioned four case studies to help understand how researchers had engaged with policymakers and practitioners and what happened as a result. We were particularly interested to understand whether specific types of knowledge activity (simply providing the information, translating knowledge, brokering it within the policy environment, or facilitating innovative approaches to engagement) led to different types of impact.

We found no clear links between the type of knowledge activity and type of impact. Instead, five cross-cutting issues emerged that we think speak more to how getting the research culture right can foster different and sometimes unexpected types of impact.

1. Focus on collaboration, co-creation and an iterative approach.

Received wisdom says that you should plan for impact from the beginning of your research project. While we still think this is good practice, it doesn’t appear to matter if you start late as long as you think carefully about how you start. For example, a project on farmers’ attitudes towards risk in Uganda didn’t really begin to think about impact until after the research had ended. However, it then developed a highly collaborative, iterative approach to engagement, working with farmers, as well as local and national policymakers to co-create policy proposals that would work at all levels.

2. Emphasise local scholarship.

This is essential to building the credibility of research results. While this is a stated aim of most research projects, it was core to the work of a project to align health and industrial policies in Tanzania and Kenya. From the outset, the project’s overall approach was to help African researchers build their own reputations for highly competent, credible work. African policy stakeholders were particularly keen to hear about African issues from African scholars. Having a specific strategy to strengthen local relationships ensures that they will last long after the project has ended.

3. Networking is crucial.

The aim is not to push messages to a wide range of people but to understand where the relevant conversations are happening and how to engage with them. While standard advice is to develop an engagement plan and work through it, in a collaborative project between a UK university and a Ghanaian think tank, researchers studying the diffusion of innovation in low-income countries attended or spoke at a series of conferences to broaden their networks. They found that their connections snowballed after their first few conferences. This brought the Ghanaian think tank into the limelight, raising its profile both in Ghana and internationally. While the think tank researchers found that saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity to speak was exhausting, it paid huge dividends in terms of their ability to follow the breadth of the debates and thus the range of people reached by their messages and advice.

4. It’s all about the quality of the evidence.

Providing a credible database can be just as influential as providing tailored policy advice. One project researching structural transformation and growth in Africa simply plugged a data gap with evidence from Africa, completing a narrative about the sources of economic growth and re-evaluating earlier research findings. Yet this was highly influential. The story about economic transformation in Africa was already becoming clearer, but the project played a key role in building a detailed picture about how structural transformation happens, having an important influence on the shape and nature of the debate about how to foster economic growth in Africa.

5. Sometimes, more is more.

It can be particularly effective to use all four approaches to engagement, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes sequentially. In fact, in our four case studies it proved difficult to separate out which approaches they had used: iterating different types of engagement helped to strengthen local inputs and local scholarship… which improved the quality and relevance of the evidence… which helped build wider networks… which required different types of engagement… etc. While we still think it is important to have an idea who your target audience is and to develop outline plans, we believe there is also an argument for a ‘more is more’ approach.

What has your experience been with developing a research culture for impact? Do you have other examples to share where you have diverted from received wisdom about how the research-policy interaction should be handled?

This blog post is a modified version of “Building a culture of research impact” by Louise Shaxson published in LSE Impact Blog on January 17, 2019, which also provides links and references to the original research:

Biography: Louise Shaxson currently leads the RAPID (Research and Policy in Development) programme at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, which focuses on strengthening the uptake and use of evidence in development organisations. She has over 25 years’ experience as a researcher, research manager, policy advisor and management consultant in the UK and developing countries. Her work focuses on evidence-informed policymaking in all its guises: helping people outside government trying to integrate evidence into public policy processes, and helping those inside government departments to improve how they use evidence to make decisions. She is particularly interested in how organisational systems and processes create different cultures of evidence—and how those cultures coincide and collide to influence decision making.

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