Impact support services that try to build the capacity of researchers and broker knowledge between academia, policy and practice need to be built into programmes from the start. This is one of the key messages coming out of a new review commissioned by the UKRI.
Over the past decade we have seen a rapid growth of impact support or knowledge brokering functions that are attached to development research investments. These have varied from relatively simple projects-focused research communications, to sophisticated brokering and capacity building initiatives, working across multiple projects and programmes. Some have even taken sector wide and thematic approaches that seek to strengthen evidence use more broadly. More recently the trend has been for rapid response services attached to universities, specific donors, and institutions. COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the whole issue of evidence-informed policy and we are likely to see continued interest in programme-level brokering initiatives.
It is timely that UKRI have commissioned a review of some of its work in this area. With the launch of the new Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), capturing learning from the ESRC-DFID Partnership could not come at a better time. The Impact Initiative, which is led by IDS and Cambridge’s REAL Centre, was part of this review. We fed in our own learning gained over six years of supporting both ESRC-DFID’s - now ESRC-FCDO's - Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation and its Raising Learning Outcomes for Education Research programme. We concur with one of the main findings – that you get better results from having these services integrated from the start.
The concept of ‘boundary partners’ is useful to encourage best possible engagement
However, I struggle a little with these investments being framed as ‘support services’. This seems to suggest that the function is bolted on and largely reactive. For the best possible engagement from researchers and potential users of the research the concept of boundary partners is probably more useful. At the Impact Initiative we have supported over 200 projects from the poverty and the education portfolios. It has been those researchers who we have worked with from project inception who have benefited the most from our work. We take a highly networked approach, where we build relationships and trust with researchers and support the entire cohort to become better connected to policy actors and practitioners (and the members to each other).
We broker introductions and negotiate access to new spaces. We identify synergies across the portfolios of research, co-produce synthesis publications, and co-convene events with researchers and other boundary partners. We’ve also facilitated peer-to-peer learning and learnt a lot ourselves about what works and what does not. We are part of the network, helping to shape it and being shaped by it. Partnership dynamics and network theory are central to understanding what kinds of interventions might increase research impact and evaluating their effectiveness.
An integrated approach is required from the start of the research process
With renewed public attention and policy debate on the role of evidence in public health and beyond, I hope donors take heed of UKRI’s report. Communications and policy professionals, knowledge managers and evaluators, all need to accompany researchers along with the policy and practice networks they are seeking to engage, right from the start of the research process. Both research design, and its framing for policy, benefit from an integrated approach that takes into account the demand for evidence. The benefits of having a brokering or knowledge service working across whole programmes and portfolios of research have been well made. Wider bodies of knowledge have far more impact than single studies and a networked approach creates opportunities for learning and impact. However, as this report by UKRI shows, the greatest benefit comes from an upfront investment in brokering support that blurs the boundaries between research governance and design, cohort building and knowledge exchange.