Friday, 20 May 2016

Article - Nisha Arunatilake

Lessons from Teaching Research Methodology at IPS

Nisha Arunatilake
Fellow at Institute Of Policy Studies Of Sri Lanka

A good cook takes the trouble to source the best ingredients and knows a variety of ways of putting these ingredients together to create signature dishes. Break through research is a bit like cooking. It requires knowledge of available data, knowledge of research techniques and a bit of creativity. At the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) I have been involved in teaching research methods to junior economists over the last five years. In this blog I share with you what I learnt in my attempts to improve methodological rigour amongst our researchers.
Basics are important, both in cooking and in conducting research. One of the first methodological training courses at IPS was to teach distributional analysis. The course started with explaining income concepts and aggregating income information to arrive at disposable income. But, many junior researchers did not have the basic competencies in handling big datasets. The researchers got bogged down by the details of computer programming, although many completed the course, they were unable to fully appreciate distributional analysis and use it effectively to answer research questions.

Learning from this experience, IPS launched a series of basic courses to teach researchers how to handle big data sets, rearrange them and create variables so that when more advance methodological courses are conducted, they are free to focus on the methodological training being taught without being hindered by the details of analysis. Although the second method was more successful in teaching advance methodological concepts, many junior researchers failed to use the techniques taught in their research work. A discussion with the researchers revealed that this is because although they knew the theory of economic techniques they lacked confidence in applying the same.

Practice builds confidence. To overcome this problem, the next phase of the methodological training at IPS concentrated on giving junior researchers practical experience in conducting research. Each researcher was matched with a senior researcher according to their research interest. The junior researchers were asked to then handle projects which used one of the research methods they have learned with the guidance of senior researchers. Although this method was successful in generating a series of good research papers, it did not achieve the greater objective of improving the output of methodologically rigorous research papers.  

Creativity helps one to stand apart. A good cook can make a basic dish, like an omelet, look special. My colleague recently wrote a research paper on social determinants of health outcomes. She used a sophisticated research methodology developed by the World Bank applied on to the Demographic and Health Survey data of Sri Lanka. The paper was methodologically sound, and produced results that were largely relevant for Sri Lanka. However, she had trouble getting it published internationally. The problem was, most international journals have already published many similar papers.

Unlike ten years ago with increased access to the internet and standard data sources researchers are able to conduct good quality policy relevant research very easily. Given this easier access to data and computer, researchers tend to try to fit methodologies to research questions, which results in large numbers of very similar research papers.  But, in order for the research to stand apart and be relevant at a particular juncture, the research needs should start at asking the correct research questions. Once research questions are asked, one must see the availability of data to answer the research question being asked and choose the appropriate research methodology that would best answer the research question being asked given the available data. This requires being creative.

The main task of a policy researcher is to provide recommendations to help improve the economic outcomes of a country. This is done by identifying topical research questions. Research methodologies help researchers to find answers to these questions, given the availability of data. A wide knowledge of research methodologies and available data sources will expand the scope of research, but to conduct ground breaking research that stand apart, one needs to be creative – like a cook who can make the most basic dish taste special!

No comments:

Post a Comment