Timing is everything... or not?


Timing is everything... or not?

Long-term research to effectively support policy

More and more, research is supposed to provide quick solutions to pressing policy issues. A call for short-term research is therefore increasingly been heard. Dorothea Hilhorst states that the applicability, usefulness and uptake of research for policy is better served by investing in long-term research programmes though.

Did you know? Dorothea Hilhorst is former director of the IS academy of ‘Human Security and Fragile States’, project leader of two Integrated Programmes and former NWO-WOTRO board member

Picture: EUR

Policy-financed research aims to be useful for policy makers to base their policies on: Hilhorst elaborates that there is an implicit assumption that this would be yielded when the outcomes merely reach the policy-makers. The truth that disseminating your results is a lot harder than merely writing a policy brief. Researchers can indeed disseminate their findings, for example through a policy brief, and seek dialogue with individuals in donor institutions or governments. The succeeding incidental conversations or conferences might appear to be highly successful and may receive an enthusiastic response by the audience who has learnt about new research findings. However, Hilhorst experienced that without a follow up, these insights may rest in the minds of the individuals without traveling through the organisations. ‘This limits the impact of such occasional events and dialogues.’

In the course of the long-term research programmes that Hilhorst participated in, she found that the impact of research was attained best through relationships between researchers and people in policy and practice. ‘Policy briefs and reports may help to clarify the results, but are merely a basis to jointly elaborate and further investigate the possible implications for policy within a trusted relationship. Timed according to the feeling of urgency of the policy maker’, according to Hilhorst. ‘Because even within a trusted relationship, the timegap dilemma is a key challenge in evidence informed policy making.’

Tackling the timegap dilemma

Picture: Flickr CC - Darren Tunnicliff

When policy officers are involved in the agenda setting of research, there is always the risk that the research results come at a time when the topics are no longer considered relevant. In response to this timegap dilemma, there has been a tendency to finance shorter duration research to make sure that outputs reach audiences of policy and practice at a relevant time.

Whereas there are many reasons underpinning the usefulness of long-term research and ways to aim at effective evidence-informed policy making, the timegap dilemma can be addressed in several ways:

  • by organising the research around intermediate outputs, such as a literature review and preliminary policy briefs on findings and the timely production of reports.
  • by investing in network building with representatives of policy and practice that will allow the researcher to contribute to pertinent discussions.

Also, Hilhorst calls for a reconsideration of the timegap dilemma, by reconsidering the concept of usefulness of research. When research is seen as an instrument of reaching the objectives of foreign policy - by contributing to policy and practice in a durable way – the timing of research findings may become just one of many elements of useful research.

Supporting the broader goals of foreign policy

According to Hilhorst, some directions in which long-term research can effectively support the broader goals of foreign policy, are:

  1. Strengthen institutions in target countries that enhance evidence-based approaches
    Example: A programme of Hilhorst on the governance of artisanal mining in DRC was organised as a collaboration with the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural (ISDR) in Bukavu. Jointly engaging in the production of evidence, publishing quality papers, systematically implementing research uptake and networking furthered the credibility and reputation of the ISDR with key stakeholders in DRC. The close partnerships that were developed led to the identification of a need for more specialised gender research in DRC, and eventually the DRC programme was instrumental in establishing the Centre of Research and Expertise on Gender and Development. The centre is hosted by ISDR and continues to be a collaboration of ISDR and the Dutch Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
  2. Educate individual development-oriented researchers through PhD trajectories
    Example: Longer-term research organised around PhD trajectories for young academics, not only in the Netherlands, but also in developing countries. Apart from generating research results, research projects can also contribute to a new generation of researchers that combine rigorous research experience with a keen interest in valorisation and research uptake.
  3. Incorporate research findings in the curricula of higher education
    Longer-term research has the potential to translate research findings into curricula of higher education. When that happens, they will resound for years and inspire students that may well be future decision-makers in policy and practice.
    Example: A research programme of Hilhorst on foods security in Ethiopia led to a spin-off development of an interactive course “From relief to food security” that has been offered by the partner university of Bahir Dar to students and practitioners. The DRC research has become engaged the development of a Masters course on gender and development, that will be partially grounded in findings of their research.
  4. Focus on transdisciplinary research
    It has increasingly been recognised that research will more likely be useful when it is designed in a transdisciplinary way, meaning that it rests on consistent dialogue and collaboration with stakeholders. This type of research takes time, for example to build relationships, identify research questions and organise valorisation, and is therefore difficult to realise in short-term assignments. Systematically building bridges and use the specific knowledge and contributions ofcommunities of policy and practice is not an easy endeavour. However, it is a worthwhile investment. When prospective users of the knowledge of the research are involved from the start, see their interest translated in research questions, are involved in data gathering and have a say in the validation and the analysis of the findings, the likelihood that knowledge outcomes will be useful and used becomes much stronger.

Refreshing insights and instant help

But specifically targeting at results might not even be necessary. Dorothea Hilhorst experienced that policy makers can also be less interested in specific results of research than in engaging in discussions that help them to either refresh their minds, or to offer instant help. Hilhorst: ‘During the IS academy, staff from the Ministry found it very refreshing to have lunch meetings where fieldwork was discussed or a new publication presented. It offered them insights broader than the specific research results.’ An example she gives of an immediate outcome is that a researcher - working on issues of entrepreneurship - could help the Embassy in South Sudan to organise a business delegation by opening up his network of South Sudanese businessmen.

Besides, Hilhorst states that solely aiming at research that is interesting for officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a narrow way of conceptualising usefulness. The view should be broader if one takes the objectives of foreign policy - such as the realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals - as the starting point of valorisation. Researchers should address policy audiences in other arenas as well, such as in the countries of research or in international fora.

Lastly, not only direct relevance to policy is important, one should also keep in mind that influencing practice can in turn be relevant for policy makers. Without denying that policy does have an impact on practice, it has long been recognised that the policy cycle does not work in a linear way, or is even starting with policy. Hilhorst: ‘In reality, practice is shaped by many factors outside of policy. Practice has a life of its own, and it is often the case that the policy cycle happens in a reverse way. Interesting work on innovation shows that innovation usually starts in practice, and it is therefore equally - if not more - important to target research uptake at communities of practice.’