Tools for Bringing Research to Policymakers at the PopPov Conference on Population, Reproductive Health, and Economic Development
by Kate Belohlav, research associate, International Programs
On Jan. 25, 2014, four senior-level researchers and donors opened the final day of the Eighth Annual PopPov Conference by sharing the strategies they have used for bringing research to policy and provoking thoughtful discussion. Peter da Costa, development consultant, facilitated the panel which included Jan Monteverde Haakonsen, Research Council of Norway; Chimaraoke Izugbara, African Population Health and Research Center (APHRC); Susan Rich, PRB; and Veronique Filippi, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The group addressed one of the core goals of the PopPov initiative: using evidence generated by PopPov researchers to inform policy. Panelists and conference attendees brought up the many challenges that both researchers and funders continue to confront in the pursuit of bringing research to policymakers. In this first blog post, I will focus on some of the core issues that came up during the discussion from the perspective of researchers, while a future post will cover discussion from the perspective of funders.
Build communications into the budget and mentor junior researchers. Once research is complete, the results must be communicated, although there is debate regarding who is best positioned to convey the research to policymakers. Some members of the audience argued that researchers are trained to develop technical analytical skills in their fields of expertise, and might not be the best people to actually communicate findings. Other participants pointed out that some researchers really do understand how to engage with policymakers. One audience member proposed that these seasoned researchers/policy communicators should mentor junior researchers and help them develop those skills.
Being a mentor requires time and commitment, which may be difficult for senior researchers to provide. Veronique Filippi pointed out a more-structured way of building communications into a research program—by having a budget line for communications. Some of her PopPov-funded research has included a budget for communications, and she advised that 5 percent to 10 percent of the grant budget be allocated to communications. In her case, a specialized group communicated the findings to researchers, and this budget allocation helped bring Filippi’s research to policymakers.
Involve in-country researchers in the project. Several panelists and audience members shared their experiences in presenting evidence to policymakers, and emphasized the importance of involving researchers who are from the country being studied. These participants provided their perspectives on how involving in-country researchers contributed to the success of the project, while Filippi presented an anecdote of a less-successful situation: A doctoral student published her findings from her analysis of an African country’s Demographic and Health Survey in a well-known journal. A senior representative from the Ministry of Health (MoH) of that country met a co-author from that study at an international conference. The MoH representative indicated that she was upset that the findings had not been presented in-country, and that no one from her country appeared to have been involved in the analysis. While she may have found the paper and its findings useful, the lack of engagement with researchers on the ground and dissemination in country made them less acceptable. This anecdote illustrates the value in involving researchers from the country being studied, because policymakers may take the research more seriously or be more receptive if they have their own people involved, or if there is a serious effort to engage them through meetings.
Work with stakeholders from the outset of a research initiative. Chimaraoke Izugbara shared insights from his experience in engaging with Kenyan policymakers on the sensitive issue of abortion. Izugbara and his team began by creating a stakeholder map and identifying key parties, which allowed them to gain buy-in early in the engagement process. By working together with the Ministry of Health, Izugbara and his fellow APHRC researchers identified sensitive topics and proposed a solution and specific language for amending policies to improve postabortion care in Kenya. This engagement and relationship development has been vital in their ongoing work with policymakers to improve postabortion care.
When to publish in the mass media, and avoid “dumbing down the research.” Is it possible for researchers to publish short opinion pieces, or simplified versions of their research, without losing respect from their peers in the larger research community? Making the research less technical and available to the public can raise awareness of an issue, and catch the attention of a policymaker. One senior researcher encouraged the researchers themselves to publish op-eds, as long as they support a growing body of research on the topic. Another senior researcher echoed the same sentiment, emphasizing the importance of framing the research within the content of the larger body of literature being proposed, and developing key messages to make the research more accessible to the general public.
Several other important points came up during the conversation:
- During these types of discussions about bringing research to policy, researchers and donors should keep in mind that some country contexts are changing rapidly, and these contexts require flexibility among the researchers.
- When researchers collect data, they should work with the community to inform them of their findings.
- What happens when the research does not yield “good” results, or when the results are different from what the policymakers or donors had expected? What about when they conflict with the policymaker’s agenda?
One goal of many academic researchers is to improve the lives of individuals: by uncovering new evidence about effective policies and programs, identifying relationships between key socioeconomic variables and policies, and using innovative methodologies to realize these findings. The next step—translating, communicating, and delivering this evidence to policymakers—is often fraught with challenges. PopPov conference attendees shared some strategies they have successfully employed for bridging the gap between research and policy.
Researchers can incorporate these strategies from the first steps of developing their research questions, while funders can consider a few of these options when structuring research grants. Another post on this panel will cover some other strategies that funders may consider incorporating into their strategies of bringing research to policymakers.