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Building a think tank’s research agenda: an insight into CSTEP’s experience

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Dr. Annapoorna Ravichander, Head of the Communication and Policy Engagement Team at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP).]

A research agenda is a plan that focuses on topics and ideas which are relevant and topical to a nation and important and useful for an organisation/Think Tank. It also helps an organisation to plan/articulate long and short-term goals.  A research agenda helps in organising and prioritising research topics which will help an organisation/Think Tank in prioritising and in taking decisions on research areas/topics. In some cases it also, indirectly, helps in improving the quality of research data, since focus is given to topics of relevance and interest. 

Typically a research agenda bridges the gap between a dialogue and a path to evidence-based research. One of the main objectives of a Think Tank is to inform and create an impact on society, influence a nation’s policy making process and contribute to public debate. Researchers form a small part of a nation’s policy making process and sometimes are able to exert influence by providing solutions to issues of national importance.

Keeping this in mind, an organisation defines a research agenda by identifying topics which are of importance to the nation and also often part of the political agenda of a government.  The two main uses of having a research agenda is to communicate with all stakeholders regarding an area of expertise and guide the organisation’s decision making process with reference to choosing the domains of interest.

Some schools of thought claim that setting a research agenda is primarily to influence issues which require the attention of policy makers, while others claim that setting a research agenda is a legitimate concern to seek the attention of policy makers. Primarily, the difference is that organisations/Think Tanks often conduct a particular research study because it is either driven by a funder or, as mentioned earlier, of great importance to the nation. For example, currently, Smart Cities is a very important topic that the Indian government is paying a lot of attention to. Several research organisations/Think Tanks are working out ways to address this issue. In some cases, organisations/Think Tanks are conducting pro-bono studies, which may not be on the wish list of a nation, yet, pertinent.

Ideally the first step in policy research is to set a research agenda, which needs to hold the attention of all stakeholders.

A typical Research Agenda will require the following information:

  • Introduction – The agenda needs to include a brief background
  • Research Agenda – To include key research areas with 1-2 points to explain
  • Conclusion – A summary of the main points discussed
  • Bibliography – List of key references
  • Acknowledgement – Thank individuals/groups who provided additional information
  • Appendices – Provide additional information

CSTEP’s Experience

The Center for the Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) is one of the largest Think Tanks in India. CSTEP has strong vision and mission statements and believes in having a research agenda to help build expertise in a particular area of work. Over the years, CSTEP has identified several areas of importance and has defined its research agenda accordingly. Often these areas have been based on the need for evidence-based research, ability to inform the policy making process and most importantly, raise sufficient funds to conduct the necessary research. Any prospective donor/funder always looks at partnering/providing funds to issues that they assign topmost priority on their political agenda. So, while creating a research agenda, it is very crucial to understand the larger picture of how your research agenda may have elements which could provide partial solutions to an issue of political importance. Having a well-thought out research agenda is bound to attract the interest of a prospective donor/funder.

In this endeavour, CSTEP’s clear vision and mission statements have helped in formulating the key areas/agenda it pursues. CSTEP also has a well-planned staff structure who contributes in ideating and managing the research agenda. For example, CSTEP’s work on Smart Grids is headed by a Principal Investigator who leads a team of people who are knowledgeable in the subject matter. In addition, the team also has an Advisor, an expert with years of experience in the domain, who periodically works with them to ensure that goals are met.

CSTEP takes into consideration external factors that are required to initiate a research agenda for the organisation. Some of these factors include demand for evidence-based policy research, ability to make an impact on the policy making process and fundraising. CSTEP also ensures that its research agenda is concrete, provide guidance over a period of time and enable new challenges to be accepted. The research agenda also includes strategies and, often, processes to engage with different stakeholders. More importantly, it helps in identifying and deciding research priorities. The chart below gives an overview of CSTEP’s research expertise, key funders and topics of interest.

CSTEP agenda

We, at CSTEP, believe that a good research agenda often serves as a roadmap, to help collaborate with like-minded researchers/organisations and work on topics of national importance. In order to facilitate this, members of the organisation’s senior management go through a well-planned exercise and identify the primary areas of research based on the following factors:

  • Availability of expertise
  • Interest of the political community
  • Importance of the topic.

As a process, re-visiting a research agenda becomes important so that additional or redundant research points are addressed. Ideally a research agenda becomes a living document, which is referred to and updated when new priorities are identified.

To conclude, a good research agenda will help a stakeholder/audience to recognise your prior successes, your work (ongoing and completed), the relevance of your research, and most importantly, showcase your areas of expertise.  At CSTEP, the research agenda is a part of our Organisational Strategy, which includes a broad idea, research areas and activities that will be undertaken over the next 5 years.

 

[Editor’s note: For more blog posts on CSTEP’s experience dealing with think tanks’ decisions read Acknowledging a prominent think tank: the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) in India.]

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