Friday 4 September 2015

Interview 4

Peter Taylor 
Program Leader, Think Tank Initiative, IDRC

How has IDRC evolved over the years in its role of communicating new research ideas or opinions and also informing to public debate? How does TTI’s work reflect this evolution?
The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has, since its foundation in 1970, always placed an emphasis on communicating new research ideas and informing public debate. This goes back to IDRC’s mandate, as outlined in The International Development Research Centre Act : “to initiate, encourage, support, and conduct research into the problems of the developing regions of the world and into the means for applying and adapting scientific, technical, and other knowledge to the economic and social advancement of those regions.” As a result, IDRC encourages researchers who receive its support to build resources (time, people, funds) into effective communication of the research findings. This goes beyond simply disseminating findings of the research; it also includes active engagement with diverse audiences at various stages of the research, from concept development right through to the sharing of results and outcomes. IDRC aims to promote ways of ensuring the widest possible access to research ideas, findings, and recommendations, and one example of this is its new open access policy for all IDRC-funded research outputs. With the emergence of new information technologies, IDRC is also paying more attention to different forms of social media and emerging mechanisms for public engagement, some of which are supported by new technologies. This will continue to be a key focus for IDRC in the future. 

Just as IDRC views this as very important, so does the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). We provide ongoing support to institutions wishing to develop their communications and engagement efforts and, over the course of the Initiative, we have seen many TTI-supported institutions make significant improvements to their use of social media as well as their communication of publications and research outputs. There is also growing interest in data visualisation, which TTI encourages as a means for Think Tanks to get their work into the hands of wider audiences. And of course, the core funding that TTI provides is being used by all grantee institutions to strengthen their communication and engagement work as part of their pathway towards institutional sustainability.

Science and Technology enables most of modern development. How do you envisage IDRC taking this to a different level, in providing a platform for a discussion on the role of S&T on a nation’s growth? What is happening within the TTI program in this regard?
IDRC has a strong focus on science and technology within its overall programming. One of its three program areas is “Technology and Innovation “, the aim of which is to leverage science and innovation for development. The rationale for this, as the Technology and Innovation program explains, is that sscience, technology and innovation (STI) can drive economic growth, help solve social and environmental problems, and reduce poverty. All countries need to develop their capacity to produce and use science and technology themselves, and adapt knowledge to their needs and contexts. Societies also need to understand both the benefits and risks of emerging technologies, such as digital ones, in order to maximise their benefits. IDRC’s Technology and Innovation program supports research and capacity building to help developing countries produce, adapt, and use STI for development. Taking a recent example, IDRC was the co-host of the 2015 Open Data Conference, held in Ottawa, Canada. This platform brought together 1000 participants with a strong desire to engage around the important issue of access to data. The emphasis on STI will continue within IDRC’s recently established strategic objectives for the period 2015-2020.

Within TTI, several institutions are working on science and technology issues, for example CSTEP in India, and STIPRO in Tanzania. Examples of their work on science and technology can be found here. Although science and technology are not generally central to the work of TTI-supported institutions, the broader social and economic agendas that Think Tanks work on often do relate to science and technology issues, and we imagine this could be a growing area for many institutions engaging in public policy debates.

What is one of the most compelling stories you have seen on a generative engagement between research and policy-makers? What was the outcome of this engagement? What do you think created the shift in engagement?
We have seen many exciting and compelling stories emerge from institutions that TTI supports over the last 5 years. Actually, it is difficult to pick out one story as there are many. 

In Ghana, for example, we have seen the Institute of Economic Affairs create a convening space to which policy actors from across the political spectrum were invited to discuss political transitions following Presidential elections. The Institute then worked to turn these recommendations into concrete legislation. As a result of this engagement, a Presidential Transition Bill was passed in 2012 which helped secure more peaceful and effective processes following national elections. 

In Peru, research by Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE), helped the Government of Peru make strategic investments in infrastructure to benefit rural Peruvians. Seeing a window of opportunity, GRADE provided the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion with research to support the design of a new infrastructure investment program. GRADE demonstrated that making two infrastructure investments in one area leads to a greater total increase in income for beneficiaries, and helped the Ministry identify those households most in need of access to infrastructure. As a result, the Ministry used GRADE’s findings to design its Infrastructure Combo program, which is expected to invest USD $225 million per year in basic rural infrastructure between 2013 and 2016. 

And in India, research on market-based mechanisms by the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) is helping India meet its increasing demand for energy more efficiently. CSTEP worked with India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency to design the Perform, Achieve and Trade (PAT) mechanism, which promotes energy efficiency among large energy-intensive industries by allowing trade in Energy Saving Certificates. CSTEP reached out directly to a multitude of stakeholders, augmenting its research by facilitating meetings to raise awareness about the PAT mechanism and to improve the proposed methodology for it. These meetings, discussions and the briefs CSTEP prepared were crucial in establishing some of the goals set forth in the PAT framework. The organization also played an important role in communicating industry concerns to the government and in helping to address them. As a result, CSTEP’s research enabled the Government of India to design and implement PAT, the first market-based mechanism of its kind in India.

In engaging with policy-makers, what according to you are the blind-spots among Southern Think Tanks? What do these Think Tanks need to see and do differently?
There is no doubt that southern Think Tanks are becoming ever more aware of the value of engaging with policy makers – and indeed, with a diverse range of policy actors. Fortunately, evidence suggests that policy makers are also more interested in accessing the research results, data, and analysis produced by Think Tanks. For TTI, policy actors include not only government, but also public service; civil society and non-governmental organisations; other types of knowledge producing institutions such as universities; the media; and of course different supporters of the work of Think Tanks such as funders, both national and international. It is interesting to observe, however, that this wider group of institutions is not always considered an audience by Think Tanks. Failing to identify the range of key stakeholders and audiences for a specific research issue can lead to missed opportunities for engagement, as well as the insufficient targeting of information, outputs, or ideas to the particular interests of an audience. Conducting some form of environmental scan, or stakeholder analysis, can be a very effective means for a Think Tank to identify those with whom they can engage in relation to a particular policy issue. 

Another “blind spot” is perhaps not always recognising that policy engagement is crucial throughout the overall research process. It is often left to the end, as a means of sharing results rather than getting conversations started early on, despite the fact that it can help shape the design and approach of the research. And of course, fundamental communication skills are important. Many Think Tanks now are creating Communications and Engagement Units within the organisation, which bring the skills of communication specialists in-house. However, for a Think Tank, communications and engagement are really the responsibility of all researchers; a communications unit or specialist can bring excellent experience and skills to help support researchers, but ultimately it is a shared endeavour. 

Finally, it is worth highlighting a point that we often hear made by policy makers – the ways in which researchers present their results do not always resonate with the interests and needs of policy makers. Engaging with policy makers can help researchers better understand how to make their findings and analyses accessible and practically useful. On the Results page of the TTI website, there are a range of Stories of Influence which showcase ways in which Think Tanks around the world have influenced policy makers through effective engagement and communication. We hope these will prove useful to all Think Tanks who are interested in in strengthening the way they engage with different policy audiences.

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