[Editor’s note: This post is the introduction to a series produced by Andrea Ordóñez and Leandro Echt from Politics & Ideas to share what we learned through the online course Doing policy relevant research, ran for the first time in the first quarter of 2016. The course was supported by the Think Tank Fund and the Think Tank Initiative.]
The first round of the Doing policy relevant research course has finished successfully, and it has been inspiring. Just over a year ago, I had posted about how research quality had been overseen in the discussions on think tanks performance. Now, we have a starting point to support these institutions to improve the relevance of their research, from the very onset.
Research is at the heart of what a think tank does. However, research capacities do not tend to be a central focus of the development of these organizations. After all, aren’t they composed of researchers who have gone through extensive training to become good researchers? Aren’t these researchers’ credentials enough?
We believe that researchers can benefit from additional capacities and skills to complement their formal training, especially to improve policy relevance and impact. Indeed, if you have ever sat down in a research methods class in a masters or PhD program – and you probably have – it is very likely you have been introduced to the process of doing research for academia. There are quite a bit of explicit and implicit rules about doing research for a PhD thesis or for academic journals. This is at the core of the training in universities, and of course these skills are very important for any type of research effort.
But are these rules and frameworks that appropriate and useful when you are doing research for policymaking? Or should we take into consideration different guidelines from those for “academic” research? Is researching for policy the same as academic research, but we would then just need to communicate it differently?
Our course is based on the premise that researchers and research institutions that do good research for policymaking have a set of unique skills that distinguish them from those that do purely academic work. These skills are not only communicational, but involve capacities to choose and design topics, plan research processes and gather data in specific ways. They have specific and deliberate ways of linking with the world of policymaking. Similarly, the organizations where these researchers work have created an environment that enables them to carry out this work successfully.
Of course there are no clear cut recipes that will work for all. Just like any other research endeavour, researching for policy is as much an art as it is a science. This means that as researchers we need to develop both the right mind-set and the practical skills for our work. Think tank leaders also need to create an enabling environment for relevant research to flourish.
To share some of the most important lessons of the course, this series will present some of its most important aspects, as well as reflections from our participants and the facilitators. We hope that this will translate into a broader opportunity to develop and discuss the craft of doing policy relevant research.
The second post is authored by Leandro Echt. It gathers a set of principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice, which will help researchers develop both the right mind-set and the practical skills for their work, and create an enabling environment for relevant research to flourish: 1. Embedded in policy, 2. Internally and externally validated , 3. Responds to policy questions and objectives, 4. Fit for purpose and timely, 5. Crafted with an analytical and policy perspective, 6. Open to change and innovation: as it interacts with policy spaces and policymakers, and 7. Realistic about institutional capacity and funding opportunities.
In the third post Andrea Ordoñez discusses why should one discuss individual and institutional research agendas when talking about policy relevance. From Politics & Ideas’ experience working at and with think tanks, she learned that this is usually a tacit issue that, though relevant, very rarely gets the reflection and discussion needed.
The fourth post by Leandro Echt states that research agendas are not only based on think tanks’ interests or objectives. Think tanks do not work isolated of their context. As well as they seek to influence the context in which they work, at the same time they are influenced by it and the diversity of stakeholders that are part of it. Thus, the article addresses the importance of understanding the research choices we make given the context where we work.
In the fifth post of the series, Leandro Echt focuses on the second principle for policy relevant research, which suggests that it should be internally and externally validated. Without connecting our initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish list disconnected from reality, losing social and political relevance. The cycle of developing a research agenda benefits from four general steps: 1) an internal process of brainstorming and discussions, 2) the engagement with relevant stakeholders 3) the inclusion and arbitrage of the suggestions received and 4) communicating the agenda (this final step will be addressed in Module 6). In this post, the author shares some tips for your consideration in steps 1) and 2).
The sixth post, by Leandro Echt, presents a method that can be used by you and your team to understand the specific policy problem that your project, program or initiative will tackle and plan your research and policy influence activities accordingly. The method links three concepts: policy problem à policy influence à roles of research. Linking them will aid you in maintaining a realistic objective of policy influence while doing the research.
In the seventh post Andrea Ordoñez introduces a question: is there a tension between rigorous research and research being relevant, thus increasing the chance of having an impact? The author believes that there has to be ways by which a research can make better methodological choices that can be rigorous and also coherent with the policy context. The article shares some ideas for navigating methodological choices that researchers can keep in mind for their current and future projects.
The eight post focuses on innovation, which has become a new buzz-word among many types of organizations, including think tanks. But before your organization decides to jump in, Andrea Ordoñez shares some considerations on how and when to innovate.
The ninth post is a contribution by Tanja Jakobi from CENTAR Public Policy Research Centre, Serbia, a participant of the online course Doing Policy Relevant Research. She states that think tanks uses to walk up and down our research agenda all the time. But walking through the process is not exactly the same as reflecting on it, so she highlights the power of reflection when building a research agenda.