Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Making your work count: it's all about impact

by Amna Akhtar

Not all impact is measurable; the ray system of an impact crater
Photo credit: Wikipedia/ NASA

What is the usefulness of your work? How can it be leveraged to contribute to meaningful and positive change? Do you really think you are helping people? I am often met with questions like these from family, friends, colleagues and just about anyone I attempt to explain my work to. This is not an uncommon situation for researchers who are often called upon to demonstrate the value of their work. The fear behind this is that research products on their own can be inaccessible for many people, and unless researchers are pushed to connect their work to people and practice, they may not care very much about their work making a difference in the world.

And so over the past few years, development research has witnessed the advent and popularisation of what is known as research uptake. The term uptake and its related terminology can be perplexing. In over six months of closely engaging with research uptake activities, I have realized that there is no accepted definition of the term. Research uptake is about linking research to changes in policy and practice, and involves activities that go beyond simply making research findings widely available.

For the international development community (also known as donors), research uptake is part of an overall effort to focus on impact. Whether it is building homes or influencing behaviour and mindsets, we all want to see impact. And we want to see it quick. The success and failure of a project or a programme is perceived by the measurable impact it creates.

This is problematic because it pre-determines who shoulders the responsibility for the outcome and what we might learn from the programme. While measuring impact during and after any intervention is extremely important, often our initiatives tend to become solely driven by the perceived impact. This is a slippery slope because development professionals still struggle with definitions and meaningful indicators of impact. In 2012, I was teaching at a local government girls’ school and while my aim was to help my students overcome a six year of achievement gap I was also responsible for building in them key attitudes and mindsets for their personal growth.

While tests and exercises allowed me to measure the mathematical abilities of my students, it was much harder to gauge whether any of my strategies were effective for their attitude building. Were the group exercises inculcating attributes of teamwork and cooperation like I envisioned? How would I determine if the motivational talks were increasing their grit and independence? I constantly grappled with these questions and naturally when I was unable to adequately measure and demonstrate this impact, it was assumed not to exist. While I had anecdotal evidence of changes in behaviour and attitudes, I could never say for certain if I was able to contribute to any lasting positive mindset change in the lives of my students. By contrast, there was measureable improvement in their mathematical skills. While both elements of my job were equally important, the impact of one was measurable, the other not. What lesson was one to draw from this?

This dilemma becomes even more profound when we set to determine impact and usefulness of our research. Because researchers are required to demonstrate the positive impact of their work, an ideal indicator of research uptake impact is shift in policy or programming based on the evidence generated. But we all know that policy processes are not linear and may take a long time to evolve, if they ever do. While we all hope that our research will contribute to evidence based decision making, we can never be certain if it will and when would that be.

But does that mean research uptake has no value or can’t ever influence policy change? I don’t think so. Research uptake is a two way process. While we may attempt to regularly engage with stakeholders with the intention of influencing decision making, it is important to continuously reflect and learn from our interactions to ensure our research is relevant and meaningful. Research uptake is as much about identifying the key openings and opportunities for debate as it is about influencing policy and practice. Perhaps the real impact of research uptake is in correctly identifying these openings in policy making processes.