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Why do we need to analyze our context to design a research agenda?

[Editor’s note: This post is the fourth of 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.]

 

In our previous post we introduced the seven principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice. The first one referred to the embeddedness of the research agenda in policy context. 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, it is important to understand the research choices we make given the context where we work.

By ottomata under CC at flickr.com

By ottomata under CC at flickr.com

In their study about think tanks’ decisions, performance and context, R4D (2014) found that in general think tanks adapt their organizational and project level decisions to context on a fairly regular basis. So when we are designing a research agenda it is necessary to take into account the context in which our research will be conducted. Here is why:

  • Identify if your ideas are relevant. An analysis of the context will help you understand whether our research is relevant for a certain number of players, especially for those who may become the users of our work. In Module 1 we said that policy research is contextualized by nature, since the objective is to generate knowledge that is relevant to make decisions in a certain region, country or community. This includes not only policymakers but other influential actor with related needs and interests.
  • Envisage your capacity to influence. The definition of a research agenda is linked to a think tank’s capacity to influence public policies. For instance, when think tanks set their own research agenda without paying attention to the context they are often autonomous but distanced from the political system. The opposite occurs when the agenda is only influenced by exogenous variables: think tanks lose autonomy but are more aligned with priorities in the policy arena (Echt, 2014).
  • Clarify your current capacities and potential. When a think tank understands its context, it must look at itself and see how prepared it is to tackle it. The ability to assess the demand for a think tank’s area of technical expertise is important for the think tank to develop a research agenda (in Module 3 we will share some mechanisms that think tanks put in place to identifying the demand for research).
  • Become critical of your independence. A think tank usually wants to be an independent voice. But what is independence? Usually, the standard argument for loss of autonomy has to do with the source of funding and the ‘funding model’ of a think tank (Weyrauch and Garzón de la Rosa, 2014). But independence is also important in relation to political affiliation or to favour the current government or opposition. Understanding your context may help you define the most critical aspects of how to preserve the independency of your work.
  • Develop your understanding of trends. How many times do we ask ourselves what are the main policy issues in the political agenda? How often do we analyze the trends in international policy research to understand what are the mainstream discussions in our field? Moreover, we need some funds to conduct our studies. Thus, international cooperation and donors’ priorities (and other less extended donors like the private sector and the State) also influence our decisions on what policy issues work on.

It is important that the process of analysing the context is done constantly, and not as a onetime event. In many countries, context is in constant flux, and an organization disconnected from it might miss valuable opportunities.

Now we present questions based on different aspects of the context, organized from exogenous to endogenous somewhat, although it is wise for you to explore how malleable these factors are for your particular case. By asking these questions a think tanks thematic agenda passes a “context filter” that can help researchers identify which topics are more relevant, which might need reconsideration and if any should be dropped. This exercise can be carried out at an institutional or programmatic level, depending on the particular characteristics of each think tank. Furthermore, this exercise may require the involvement of other stakeholders through interviews or workshops.

Broad political scenario

  • How does the political system react to independent thinking?
  • What are the main changes occurring in the political or economic system?
  • Are there any relevant policy milestones in the short or middle term?

Intellectual climate and the role of other organizations

  • Do we understand the intellectual climate where we work? How do we fit in it?
  • Are there other players fostering the use of evidence?
  • How is science valued by other actors?
  • Is there a demand for evidence from citizens? What type of evidence?
  • What are the agenda of other research centers, universities and civil society?
  • How is our relationship with other intellectually relevant actors? Do we compete or complement each other?
  • Have we identified international trends in academia or policy? How are we related to them?
  • What are the priorities, strategies and objectives of donors?
  • Is there enough information about the topic I am choosing?
  • What are the interests, worries and capacities of public agencies regarding the use of research in policymaking?

[Editor’s note: Read other post of this series: 

1. Crafting policy relevant research

2. What are principles of policy relevant research? 

3. Individual and institutional research agendas: how are they different?

5. Drafting and validating your research agenda

6. Understanding policy problems and their implications in your research decisions

7. Methodological choices to inform policy

8. Choosing to innovate in your research agenda

9. The power of reflection when building your research agenda]

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