Friday, 27 February 2015

Research (uptake) – so what?

by Samar Zuberi

'Come and have a BCG vaccine' poster

So what exactly is research uptake? 
Individuals and organisations conducting research in the social sciences are increasingly being called upon to ensure that there is uptake of their work. I recently spent a week with 150 professionals from across the globe discussing the concept of research uptake. I came away with the realisation that there is no accepted definition of the term and in fact disagreement over whether it should be used at all, however there is consensus amongst many that the idea behind research uptake is the right one - researchers should leave their ivory towers and demonstrate how their work positively affects society.

In fact it is funders of research that have promoted the idea of research uptake (and DFID specifically have popularised the term) as they want to ensure the research they support will affect positive change.  The notion of research uptake has evolved from research communications – previously communicating the potential benefits of one’s research was sufficient, however now one is required to demonstrate this benefit in a concrete manner.  As a result, where research programmes and studies had budgets for research communications there are now budgets for research uptake. Research communication involves distinct events around dissemination such as holding a seminar or writing a policy brief, research uptake is a process which works to link research to policy, practice and people. This process involves a range of actors and various activities which tend to be quite context dependent, however there is a strong focus on engagement and understanding of research, and evidence-based decision making.  

So what does this mean for social science researchers?
Much of the work of organisations like the Collective is concerned with conducting primary research on issues which affect the poor and marginalised.  A significant portion of this is commissioned by those working on social and economic programming in the country, whether they are state policy makers or donors working in the development sector. These organisations also engage in academic research in an effort to contribute to the on-going dialogue in the region and globally on the social sciences. For more on this read Ayesha Khan's article 'The Relevance of Research: Social Science as Local/GlobalResistance'. 

Central to the motivation of undertaking both of these types of research is the notion of uptake. Many researchers, such as those at the Collective, engage in policy-related work with the intention of generating an evidence-base which will help others better make policy decisions. Alternately, when  the Collective’s researchers works on purely academic issues related to social science they do so with the hope that this work will help inform debate amongst others who work on similar issues.  Both policy and academic research, therefore, are conducted with at least a vague hope that there will be uptake in some forum or other.  

So what is the tension between researchers and research uptake about?
This might lead one to believe that there should be synergy then between the aims of researchers and research uptake. This has not quite been the case. As a researcher who has spent approximately 50% of her time over the past two years thinking about and engaging with the idea of research uptake, I have found there to be mixed views and often resistance to the idea. This resistance in fact represents an inherent tension between researchers and research uptake. 

While researchers at the Collective intend for their research to aid in policy-making decisions or hope that their research will help inform debate, some see actively pushing for these outcomes as the role of those involved in advocacy and not that of an independent researcher. In fact there is a sense that thinking about the end-user of your research or worrying about the impact of your research can potentially threaten its neutrality. However to produce research that is of relevance in the social and economic policy arena doesn’t one need to engage with actors in this space to understand the issues and landscape? It is here that research uptake moves beyond communications, and engagement with relevant stakeholders throughout the research process becomes important. This engagement then has the potential to improve understanding and result in action based on evidence. 

However within the sphere of academic research not all research studies attempt to answer policy relevant questions, and not all research has the potential to improve practice or people’s lives. To push researchers in this direction has the potential to stunt conceptual and theoretical thinking.  There is a sense amongst some researchers that the emphasis on research uptake may prevent funders from supporting and promoting certain types of research, which can potentially be detrimental. 

So what does this mean for research uptake?
Research uptake is a valuable process which can help ensure the usefulness of one’s research. It can also provide a set of tools that can aid research in informing debate and that can build the capacity of actors to use evidence. However when used to demonstrate and attribute the positive effect of one’s research it can be at best dubious, as we know policy, practice and people are never solely driven by evidence.