Research needs “radical transformation”

Gozde Zorlu
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

A radical transformation in the way research is carried out by universities and institutions is needed to improve the use of evidence by policymakers in the global North and South. This is what John Young, director of impact assessment, partnerships and RAPID at the Overseas Development Institute, UK, argued on the first day of the International Conference on Research for Development.

Young’s talk, on enabling research in global transformation, focused on influencing policy on what he refers to as ‘wicked problems’. These are global challenges that are difficult to define, multi-causal, socially complex and experience chronic policy failures. Needless to say, perhaps the most pressing wicked problem of our time is climate change. And as we have seen, despite the urgency of the problem and its prominence in research and political limelight, collective political action has been, and still is, lacking.


Policymakers do not use evidence to inform decision making for a number of reasons, Young explained. These can be neatly summarised as (quoting British politician Vince Cable): speed, superficiality, spin, secrecy and scientific illiteracy among policy makers.

He urged the need to recognise that policymaking involves a range of factors other than evidence, such as economic, social and political factors, resource limitations and increasing pressure from NGOs, and called the process “chaotic”. To appreciate the reality of this complex situation, he suggested a shift from using the phrase evidence-based policy to evidence-important policy.

While it is quite easy to become discouraged and complacent about these challenges, Young explained that research carried out in the right way can be hugely influential.

But how?

Young argued that research requires a radical transformation. As it stands, classical research takes too long, is expensive and focuses on academic questions and not practical solutions.

So first of all, evidence needs to be relevant. The key to this is a transdisciplinary approach, focusing on practical solutions. Researchers can no longer work alone; it is crucial to build a coalition for change with individuals and organisations not necessarily from the research community.

Collaboration of Indonesian women. Photo credit: vredeseilanden, Flickr

For this, researchers need to become good communicators and networkers. It is important to understand what the policy issues are and how these are likely to change what research is carried out. Incentives for researchers also need to be reconsidered, as publishing in peer-reviewed journals is not relevant or timely for transdisciplinary work.

Innovative communication and advocacy work is needed to improve access to research for policymakers. Demand for research can be created by presenting information in a policy-friendly way: focusing on what is known about the issue, how strong the evidence is and the likely effects of new legislation. Simplicity is key.

The importance of think tanks should not be underestimated, Young explained. Many carry out research, and have extensive policy and public affairs programmes. There is an increasing number of think tanks in the global South with strong networks of key actors, and this is crucial to influencing policy.

Young referred to exciting projects such as the Indonesia Knowledge Initiative and the Climate Development Knowledge Network that aim to improve the use of research in policy by working on capacity development with researchers and policymakers. These programmes are needed in developing and emerging countries for a vibrant knowledge economy and research to influence policy and practice.

More information on ODI’s work, and its various tools for researchers using evidence to shape policy making can be found here.

Do you have any advice or tips on how to make research more policy friendly or successful examples on the uptake of research into legislation? If so, please leave a comment below.

This blog post is part of our 3rd International Conference on Research for Development: Research for Global Transformation blog that takes place in Bern, Switzerland, from 20-22 August 2012. To read news and analysis on research for development please visit our website.

3 Responses to Research needs “radical transformation”

  1. Excellent post ! Thank you for reporting what is said in this conference. Very relevant !

  2. Adam Walker (MS candidate in Tech Policy) says:

    This is something that I am constantly thinking about – I have an entrepreneurship and policy background, and I think policy makers could learn a lot from the entrepreneurs’ “Lean Startup” model

    Boyd Cohen recently wrote about the use of this model for urban policy development:

    Also, PBS frontline recently produced a short video about the use of big data analytics to develop a successful policy intervention:

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