17 February, 2015

How funders can help research uptake

Alex Gwyther

Knowledge managers, science communicators and policy influencers – all came together for the first ever (and long awaited) ResUp MeetUp Symposium last week.

Knowledge managers, science communicators and policy influencers – all came together for the first ever (and long awaited) ResUp MeetUp Symposium last week. I attended on behalf of UKCDS, hoping to learn how funders can encourage more research uptake for global development.

‘Research uptake’ is the process of getting research evidence used to inform policy decisions or real-life practice. At UKCDS we help UK science to improve the lives of poor people around the world, by streamlining the funding and policy processes, and we’ve been thinking a lot about research uptake recently.

We’ve had workshops on opportunities for uptake professionals and responsibility for impact. This all culminated in our conference for international funders to map out how high-quality research can inform real-life decisions.

ResUp MeetUp was the perfect next step.

 So what did I learn?

Uptake is clearly an important issue for many groups. Funders and academics want their research to make a difference. Meanwhile, policymakers want to make the right decisions and know that evidence can help them do that.

There are, however, a range of different approaches to uptake, and no one size fits all. The ResUp MeetUp agenda was packed with uptake specialists showing off their new tools, from Evidence Gap Maps to the Research Uptake Self Assessment Tool. It became clear that funders might be good at their high-level strategic thinking, but this does not always match up with the real life challenges faced by researcher and practitioner.

Some at ResUp MeetUp went even further and suggested donors should focus less on uptake and more on strengthening the capacity of users to access and utilise evidence. Funders are of course very influential in shaping the research landscape, but should they be allowed to have the same sway over public policy?

These different approaches highlight that uptake is part of a growing lexicon. What was once simply known as ‘research communications’ has since evolved into subfields of impact, utilisation and influence. We must make sure that everyone is on the same page. Just because someone hasn’t heard of the K* spectrum or ROMA, doesn’t mean they should get left behind.

 What did the ResUp community feel funders could do to help?

Support the process. Funders already do a lot to encourage uptake, such as writing stakeholder engagement requirements into grant criteria and employing knowledge brokers (see our report for more). But many felt that donors could still do more to support researchers’ uptake activities – whether through sustainable funding mechanisms or providing chances for capacity building. “It’s a lot easier to get money for meetings on research uptake, than find money to actually fund uptake projects”, said one speaker.

Be clearer about aims and wants. Research uptake is a process in which there are many different pathways to reaching various end goals. As a result funders need to be more explicit when describing to researchers or practitioners what they want to achieve. What do they mean by impact? Who do they see as the end user? Is it policy officials, practitioners, local communities, funders or even other researchers?

Research the uptake. We need a better picture of the research uptake landscape so that strategies can be based on real-world examples rather than theories. An in-depth study could map out how different funders support uptake and the pathways that can lead to success. Our research uptake report is a good start, but a more comprehensive review could cast a wider net.

The recently published impact case studies from the UK’s Research Excellence Framework could help. Submitted by UK universities to demonstrate their research quality, they are shining examples (if perhaps a little airbrushed) of research having an impact in the real world. We’re considering our own analysis of these stories and amongst our many questions are some big ones on the uptake process. What types of partnerships work best? How much of impact is down to luck? Where’s best to try and intervene along the policy funnel?

What next for ResUp MeetUp?

ResUp MeetUp succeeded in bringing together an international community of uptake experts to share new ideas and hone their skills. There were a few features missing – no session on monitoring and evaluating uptake activities, and few representatives from the ‘demand side’ (e.g. the policymakers or communities) – but no doubt these could be picked up in the next ‘MeetUp’.

There was huge enthusiasm for a repeat performance and talk of future meetings as regional hubs. As with any inaugural get-together, the community’s survival depends upon establishing a clear purpose and governance, but we hope to stay tuned into the ResUp group.

As for the lessons to funders, it seems that there’s still no easy-win formula for research uptake, but clear communication around objectives and support to researchers can only help. There’s a wealth of knowledge and creativity out there, and we should make sure to tap into it.

Image credit: Martim Braz via Unsplash

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