As the UK international development research community finds itself facing a funding crisis due to the aid budget cuts, it may feel like there has never been a more challenging moment to promote research impact. However, I feel that we must push on and that this is a key moment to argue for a new approach that values broader bodies of knowledge. What’s more, people in research funding organisations appear to agree with me.
Maximising the impact of research
After six years of work, the Impact Initiative for International Development got our chance to share our learning with funders. It was the last hurrah for a programme that has transformed our understanding of how to support research impact and will have lasting effects on how we run our own research projects. Donors from the USA, UK and Canada came together last month to discuss the implications of our collective approach to support research impact.
The virtual roundtable took place against a rather grim backdrop of UK ODA cuts that appeared to be falling disproportionately on development research. The irony escaped no one. Right from the off our final learning report ‘Maximising the Impact of Global Development Research’, which emphasised the benefits of programme level knowledge brokerage, was framed as incredibly timely.
A collective approach
The Impact Initiative was fundamentally different to other research engagement investments. We did not focus on single studies or even a specific research consortium. Instead, we supported a very large and diverse portfolio of over 200 research projects funded through the ESRC-FCDO Strategic Partnership. We found you can contextualise research for policy and practice through a collective approach where you work between and across projects. In some ways this was quite counterintuitive, given a lot of received wisdom is you should be really embedded in a particular project or programme from outset. Yet, from our birds-eye perspective, we were in a unique position to identify complementary bodies of evidence, and bring projects together around identifiable policy areas and influence national policies, global discourse and local initiatives.
This breaking down of barriers between different research disciplines and policy and technical areas produced actionable concrete learning that resulted in change. The funders discussing our report were clearly excited about this model and the potential value of integrating impact services within research programme design.
Knowledge brokering as an essential part of research
My hope is that despite the current tough times we are experiencing, in which incredibly important research is under threat, both researchers and those that fund them can see the engagement of evidence with policy not as a luxury but as an essential part of the research process. Programmes like the Impact Initiative have documented evidence that they offer real economies of scale, ensuring that diverse research investments add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Sadly, we can anticipate research communications and policy engagement activities being the first casualties of reduced research budgets. It is simply too easy to think of these outputs as a load of publications, websites, and events, rather than activity critical to building relationships and awareness and promoting behaviour change over time. However, a more holistic approach that values different types and pathways to impact, including building new partnerships, challenging dominant discourses and joining up diverse types of evidence, suggests that impact work operates best when integrated into the research process and spans multiple projects.
Making the most of the research we have
Over the next period, we will need to think much harder about how to leverage awareness and engagement with existing research. After all, if there is to be a hiatus in UKRI calls and new FCDO programmes, we will have no choice but to temporarily abandon output-driven approaches that value live projects as they come to their end and have results to share. COVID-19 has boosted investments that seek to rapidly mobilise existing knowledge and it will be a huge own goal if we see these types of programme cut off as part of the current reconfiguration of funding.
One of the benefits of working on the Impact Initiative is we were cut loose from the usual project life cycle. We were responsible for supporting the impact of research that had been funded for almost a decade before we even got started. We could identify relevant knowledge from long-closed projects, live projects and research still in its early stages and bring networks of researchers and policy actors together to look at the learning. This is far more than synthesis or conducting systematic reviews. It is a networked approach that actively builds relationships, identifies gaps and seeks to fill these by connecting research producers with potential users. We were also able to document the differences these projects were making, producing a whole collection of impact stories.
Making a case for research
For the funders discussing the learning arising from our programme, one thing was clear: The real prize might be to more fully integrating knowledge brokering and cross-programme learning functions into the design of research funding programmes. If we can wean ourselves off the linear uptake model of broadcasting the results of single studies and move to a more holistic approach, we might finally make a case for the value of science for development that cannot be ignored.
This means building impact into the very fabric of funding mechanisms. These integrated elements support cohort building, facilitate learning about impact, build networks that bridge research and policy communities and deliver communications that increase the accessibility and perceived relevance of multiple forms of knowledge.
A perfect storm
My final message to both those who have been keeping an eye on the Impact Initiative’s progress and those only just hearing about us now is this: Now is the time to make the case for a collectivised, programme level approach to knowledge brokering and impact. Don’t wait for things to return to normal. Just like the wider context of a pandemic that has transformed how we work and what we work on, the clock may never be fully reset.
The increasing calls for policy to “follow the science”, pressures created by ODA cuts and the urgent requirement to demonstrate the value of research, all make for the perfect opportunity to secure approaches to connecting research with policy that value wider bodies of knowledge and broader definitions of impact.