Blog: How to make education research count

Photo: GPE/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Apr 2019
29/04/2019

ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes grant holder Dr. Melanie Ehren outlines her key learnings from the Impact Initiative hosted panel which took place at the 2019 CIES conference in April 2019.  

Last week saw the 63rd conference of the Comparative International Education Society (CIES) – a unique event bringing together both researchers and practitioners working in the field of international development and education research. Four days of sessions and informal talks offered various interesting viewpoints on how we can make our research count and why we often fail to do so.

One such session included an Impact Initiative organised panel which explored the challenges facing both researchers and policy makers in promoting evidence-based policy and practice. A panel of researchers and policy actors associated with the ESRC-DFID Raising Learning Outcomes Programme explored the role of evidence in informing policy and practice; concluding that donors and research funders can work together to improve the interface between research, evidence and policy and practice.

As a researcher, I know that evidence can play a crucial role in the development of successful reforms, but I also know it’s unlikely to influence policy purely on its own. The success of the influence of evidence on policy and practice depends on a range of factors; some of which are likely to be beyond the control of researchers. However, there is a lot we can do to develop and communicate the messages we want to get across, so here are some of my reflections of how the research community can do this better:

1. Be clear about the message!

The first one is to be clear about what the message actually is. This is almost an open door, but one I often struggle with. Our research is complex and nuanced in nature with often multiple messages and caveats. We are trained to think about generalizability, and lack thereof, and thinking in bit size messages feels counterintuitive. But it’s the clear message that policymakers and practitioners need from us: does something work, why, or why not? Once we have figured out the message, its often too late. Those we’re trying to influence have moved on to something else: a new intervention, a new policy, or other priorities.

What can we do to help make our messages clearer? We can arrange gatherings / interactions with others who have a similar research focus. By sharing and communicating, we can find commonalities in our findings on factors that enable or inhibit progression in learning and consider the needs and priorities of potential non-academic users. We can also share ideas on how best to plan, document and communicate the key messages of our research. It is also vital that if you have communications support on offer, to use it. The Impact Initiative, for example, supports ESRC-DFID grant holders to exploit influencing and engagement opportunities and they also offer help to develop programme-level research communication outputs in order to ensure research is effectively communicated and shared.

2. Engage stakeholders early on

A second reflection is thus to engage stakeholders early on when starting the research and not wait until the project is almost finalized. Early engagement also allows policymakers and practitioners to shape theresearch agenda and make it more meaningful in incorporating some of their priorities and questions. And that again helps us in thinking about the kind of message we want to get across, and allow for a conversation about some of the complexities of our outcomes. Here is where the research actually starts to count in contributing to real, sustainable change where evidence is taken on board in a genuine contextualized way.

3. Build relationships over time

In my experience, that only happens when researchers have established a long-lasting relationship with policymakers and practitioners in their field of expertise, and have established their own credibility, independence and goodwill with the stakeholders of their research. Such relationships are built over time and require a good understanding of local context, frequent interactions in various contexts with policymakers and practitioners and an expression of aiming to contribute to a common public good (instead of aiming to promote one’s own academic career). Building those relationships over time creates particular tensions for those of us who are working outside of our home country, as are many colleagues who were at the CIES conference.

4. Build in time in your country of study

How do we have impact in a country that is not our own? When we don’t have the lived experience of the education system we are studying? Perhaps don’t speak (one of) the native language(s)? Have not gone to school with those who are now in power? And don’t follow the daily news to understand what is informing their priorities? A common-sense response of most funders is to only award proposals which work with an in-country team or presence, but that only solves the problem so far. When we are the principal investigator on a project we are ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the research and also the face of the study. We are often also the one with the subject expertise that is needed to have the type of conversation that generates impact.

The only way to solve this conundrum is to dedicate ourselves to studying a small number of countries for a longer period of time, allowing us to develop long-lasting relationships and think beyond the lifetime of that single grant. This also requires a purposeful decision of what grants to bid for and where to set up your research. We can’t physically split ourselves across multiple countries and time is limited to learn about a specific country context. Allowing ourselves time to work in the country of our study, even for a brief while, provides a unique opportunity to understand the key players there and those who influence the debate. By getting to know them, we develop a shared understanding of the context and build those relationships that will make our work count.

In conclusion, and as reflected by the Impact Initiative panel, an iterative and collaborative research approach can be effective in influencing policy change. Researchers need to understand and respond to the policy environment in which they operate to leverage and build networks for engagement, and to make information available and accessible. Such strategies and planning are key to the ability of researchers to adapt and respond to rapidly changing contexts.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and DFID: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or DFID.

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