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Research Is Not An End In Itself

Naniette Coleman's picture

In the world of development, research is not enough; a free and protected media is not enough; policy is not enough; but together, the combination can be unstoppable, when communicated well. Communication is the key. Disparate pieces floating in a vacuum cannot garner the type of result that is possible when they are combined and communicated as a whole, properly. 


Panos London, an organization that is part of a larger worldwide movement called the Panos Network of independent institutes, released a report last month that speaks to their hypothesis. The report, entitled, “Research Makes the News: Strengthening media engagement with research to influence policywas inspired by the Department for International Development’s (DFID) 2008 Research Strategy. Back in 2008, DFID set out to move research from dusty back shelves to the media where policy makers can see it and use it. Panos London is taking DFID’s idea a few steps further, their report includes four case studies on effective and ineffective attempts at better translating research for media and policy maker consumption. The authors also explore the “media's capacity to generate public debate and influence policy outcomes, and provides insights into how to strengthen capacity. 


The four case studies, on Jamaica and Uganda, explore the interplay of policy, and research and how it is either hurt or helped by engagement with the media. I assumed, incorrectly, that since both Jamaica and Uganda are similar, in terms of media freedom and public involvement in the political process, that the cases would produce similar results.  The first of the Jamaica cases presented the evolution of the relationship between research, women’s labor conditions in the wholesale outlets of downtown Kingston and the corresponding response from government. The second case concerns child welfare, specifically research and policy on children’s health and how the media involvement effected public engagement. The first of the Uganda cases is an environmental one focusing on disposal and the ban on the use of polythene bags. The authors note that this was an issue with wide ranging political and public appeal. The second of the Uganda cases focuses in on an issue that did not have wide-ranging support, reapportionment of the Mabira rainforest for use in commercial sugar production. 


Their key findings from all four cases are telling: 

“Drawing on available research and evidence from the field, this briefing finds that the political and institutional context, including the degree of representativeness of government and the vibrancy of civil society, is important to understanding the capacity of the media to generate public debate around research and evidence, and to influence policy outcomes. The following factors strengthen the capacity of the media to do so:

  • the capacity of journalists to use research to create stories that capture the public's interest and are related to existing and emerging policy-making agendas
  • the capacity of researchers to produce policy-relevant research and to work with intermediaries to present such research in a way that the media can use
  • the capacity of civil society activists to pick up policy-related research and drive public debate around it
  • the strength of the relationships among these actors – journalists, civil society activists and researchers – and their associated organizations, and the degree of openness and trust among them.”

They are not alone in their findings. The Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) program, run by the Overseas Development Institute came to similar conclusions stating, “the political and institutional context is the most important factor affecting how and why research is taken up by policy makers. Specifically, the findings indicate that more open democratic political systems generally better support evidence based policymaking.” RAPID also found that “evidence itself – including the quality and packaging of the research for communication to different audiences and the nature and strength of linkages among all the different actors involved in the research policy nexus, which includes but it not limited to policymakers, researchers, civil society activists and the media.” 


So what does this all mean? According to Panos, it means, “there is no linear trajectory from research to policy outcome and no single actor in that trajectory who can determine a particular policy outcome. Each of the actors and institutions has a role to play but their relationships with each other are key to ensuring a successful outcome.” 


More broadly, according to the report the main activities that need support in order for countries in the developing world to benefit from this research are: 

  • “support of relationship-building and strengthening of trust among researchers, journalists and civil society activists
  • creation of the conditions for stronger institutional linkages and networks to develop among researchers, civil society and policy makers
  • development of journalists’ capacity to report on research findings, and their capacity to work more closely with civil society who can act as mediators with policymakers and researchers
  • development of researchers’ capacity to work more closely with the media, and with civil society advocates who can promote their work to the media and to policymakers.”

Photo Courtesy of Flickr user Austinevan

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