Online course: Doing policy relevant research


Researching (and researchers) is at the heart of what think tanks and research centres do. However, how often do we reflect on how we carry out research, and what are our assumptions about this work? This course is about research (and researchers). Not all research, but research for policymaking. Being at the core of what think tanks do, research capacities do not tend to be a central focus of the development of these organizations. After all, aren’t they composed of researchers that have gone through extensive training to become good researchers? Aren’t these researchers’ credentials enough? We believe they are but at the same time not.

Are rules and frameworks for academic research 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?  This 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 and plan research processes and gather data in specific ways as well.  This is why this course is focused on unravelling and even more trying to further develop those additional personal and institutional capacities to do good quality research for policy.

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. In this course we will explore some tools and frameworks for better focusing efforts on ensuring policy relevance and usefulness but we will also reflect on our own conceptions about what good research is, and our assumptions about the different roles and uses of research in policy processes.


The course is supported by Think Tank Fund of the Open Society Foundations and the Think Tank Initiative of the International Development Research Centre.

Curriculum of the online course Doing policy relevant research



Module 1. Evolution of concepts on research and policy links

Setting the scene for the entire course. This module proposes a critical reflection of what are the ways in which science interacts with policy, what are the potential contributions of researchers and what makes good research to effectively inform policy. It outlines the criteria for a policy relevant research agenda that will be developed in the next modules.

Module 2. Designing a policy relevant research agenda



The first step for a think tank aiming to improve its capacities to inform policy through research is to develop a strategic research agenda, by balancing internal and external forces. This module outlines what a policy relevant research agenda looks like and examines concrete examples.  It then focuses on how to ensure that research is embedded in the policy context.

Module 3. Validation of the research agenda

This module focuses on achieving internal and external validation for a research agenda. It outlines a process that begins with an in-house brainstorming and expands to the engagement with a variety of stakeholders through several ways and in different stages. It also suggests strategies to give meaning and use to the comments and suggestions and wisely incorporate them into the research agenda.

Module 4. Responding to policy problems

Policy Relevant Research responds to policy problems. This module presents a mechanism to identify and define these problems, analyse the possibilities of influence in different contexts and decide the type of research that would be relevant in each case. It is a concrete mechanism for choosing research and influence strategies aligned with the policy context to enhance potential for impact.

Module 5. Fit for purpose & Timeliness of research

Building on module 4, this one looks closely at choosing different research methods aligned with the policy problems that you are working on. Each research method has its set of strengths; this module focuses on taking into consideration the policy context to choose the one that will be fit for purpose.

Module 6. Managing and communicating your research agenda

This module finalizes the course by highlighting two key aspects of a policy relevant agenda: effective internal management and strong communication strategies. This module is based on the premise that a think tank must also be realistic about its capacities and funding opportunities to be relevant in the policy scene.

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