Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Aditi Bulletin Issue 7

Note from Managing Editor

Dear Readers,

With the beginning of a new year, we present to you a brand new issue of Aditi Bulletin. The theme of this issue is ‘Building a Research Agenda’, which is representative of new beginnings. Research is the ‘bread and butter’ of think tanks, thus building an agenda to guide the direction in which research is conducted is a crucial exercise. In this issue, we have tried to capture a couple of different ways in which organisations approach their research agenda-setting activity. After reading this issue, if you would like to share your stories, do write to us at cpe@cstep.in. Since Aditi is essentially a blog, there are no restrictions on adding new content to an issue. Happy reading!

Managing Editor, Aditi


Jai Asundi
Research Coordinator, CSTEP

A research agenda is a plan that focuses on ideas and issues which are relevant and topical to a nation and important and useful for an organisation/think tank. It helps an organisation to plan and articulate long and short-term goals. Having an agenda, not only helps a think tank prioritise research topics, but also aids in various decision making processes within the organisation. In addition to this, it indirectly helps in improving the quality of research data because the focus remains on topics of relevance and interest.

One of the main objectives of a think tank is to inform and create an impact on society, influence a nation’s policy making process and contribute to public debate. Researchers may form only a small part of a nation’s policy making process but are sometimes able to exert influence by providing solutions to issues of national importance. With this in mind, an organisation defines a research agenda by identifying topics which are of importance to the nation and is also, often, part of the political agenda of a government.

CSTEP, as a think tank working to become a foremost institution for policy innovation and analysis, has identified several areas of importance and defined its research agenda accordingly. These areas have been chosen based on the need for evidence based research, its ability to inform the policy making process and most importantly, raise sufficient funds to conduct the necessary research. Any prospective funder always looks at partnering/providing funds to issues that they assign topmost priority on their political agenda. So, while creating a research agenda, it is crucial to understand the larger picture of how your research agenda may have elements which could provide partial solutions to an issue of political importance.

At CSTEP, the primary areas of research are identified, by the senior management through a well- planned exercise, based on availability of expertise, interest of the political community and importance of the topic. Ideally a research agenda is a living document, which is referred to and updated when new priorities are identified.

In this issue of Aditi Bulletin, Alfred R Bizoza, Director of Research and Alexandre Simons, Sennior Research Fellow at IPAR-Rwanda, talk about how the institute set its research agenda, keeping in mind the country’s emerging goals, its vision and various strategic goals of the government, its regional needs and international goals such as the Sustainable Development Goals.  Prof. S. B. Agnihotri, Head, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay, in his article, talks about the need for dialogue, between technical and social science disciplines, especially when policy issues are increasingly required to appreciate technological dimensions of different issues. Leandro Echt, General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas and Andrea Odronez, Associate at Politics & Ideas talk about the next step after identifying policy relevant research agenda: validating it using internal and external sources. According to Echt and Ordonez, without connecting the initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish-list, disconnected from reality, and lacking social and political relevance. Finally, Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara- Smits, a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, believes that thinking in terms of ‘wicked problems’ (she describes them as problems worth solving, but are also seemingly impossible to solve due to various reasons) helps a researcher build an impactful research agenda that closely reflects the realities on the ground- even if pursuing this path requires intellectual stamina and the ability to walk around with a ‘black sheep’ label among peers.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue!


by Alexandre Simons, Ph.D., Integrated Expert – Senior Research Fellow and Alfred R. Bizoza, Director of Research at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda), Rwanda

by S.B. Agnihotri, Head, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay

by Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits, PhD Researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Drafting and validating your research agenda
by Leandro Echt, General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas; Coordinator of the On Think Tanks School and Editor for Latin America & Andrea Ordoñez, Associate at Politics & Ideas; Research Coordinator at Southern Voice


Concept - Dr. Jai Asundi, Principal Research Scientist, CSTEP

Illustration - Sandeep Khasnavis, Graphic Designer, CSTEP

Interesting Readings

Defining a research agenda. Balancing internal and external influences

The article provides an insight into various external and internal factors influencing research agendas of think tanks in developing countries. The author also shares some ideas on how a research agenda can be defined and designed.

The power of reflection when building your research agenda

The article focuses on the importance of reflection while designing a research agenda. The author attended the course on Doing Policy Relevant Research by P& I, which shed light on problems plaguing institutional and personal research agenda setting..

Research Uptake – what goes in is what comes out

This article highlights the importance of integrating Research Uptake (RU) related components (like impact measurement, stakeholder engagement planning, etc.) in the research agenda designing process. 

Short Course on Designing policy relevant research agendas

This post describes the components of a short course conducted by the On think Tanks School on Designing policy relevant research agendas.

Article - Alfred R. Bizoza

Setting a Research Agenda: A case for the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda), Kigali, Rwanda

Alfred R. Bizoza
Director of Research at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda), Rwanda

Alexandre Simons, Ph.D.
Integrated Expert – Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda), Rwanda
Think tanks in Africa are in their development age and this brings a lot of discussions on their reforms towards their sustainability in responding to their respective mandates. Some of the emerging debates are around their financial sustainability; their relevance to the policy and community; forming partnerships and consortiums; and setting a research agenda that address emerging issues in the country, in the region and the whole world.

The institute of Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR-Rwanda)—whose mandate is to carry out research and policy analysis aimed at impacting change—sets its research agenda focusing on themes that are interdisciplinary and are able to explicitly address new and emerging issues. Therefore, the policy analysis and research areas are embodied in a 5-Year Strategic Plan which in turn is informed by the national, regional and international development dynamics. The prominent development frameworks informing the research agenda at national level include the country’s long-term development vision (such as Vision 2020 to be upgraded to Vision 2050), government programme (such as 7-Year Government Programme), the mid-term development framework (such as the Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy – a 5-Year strategy) and the Sector Strategic Plans. At a regional level, issues pertaining to the region such as regional or trade integration receive our research attention. At an international level, reference is now made to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while prior to 2015, we would frame our research agenda in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These research areas are deemed to be relevant and influential for policymaking in the country with intellectual independence.    

IPAR-Rwanda benefits from a very conducive political and economic environment to carry out its policy analysis and research. IPAR’s research is divided into three main categories: Core research, collaborative research and commissioned research. Under core research, the institute decides an area to focus on in conducting its policy analysis and research. For example, private sector development is currently the core area of research for IPAR for the next 5 years (2017-2021). The justification of the choice of this area draws from the overarching national policy direction which envisages having a private sector-led economy, as one of the six strategic policy pillars of the Vision 2020.  Collaborative research is implemented with different partners (public, private, Civil Society organisations, regional and international organisations, and universities). For this period, areas of research considered include sustainable economic growth and transformation, social development, Governance and Democracy, agriculture, rural Development and Settlement, environment and natural resources management. Under commissioned research, IPAR does research with different local, regional and international partners as indicated above. However, the research projects under this category need to respond to the organisational mandate. The institute is always eager to create a conducive environment that allows researchers to produce high-quality policy research reports with relevant and timely policy recommendations.

Article - S.B. Agnihotri

Policy research – the approach of the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay

S.B. Agnihotri
Head, Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay
IIT Bombay recently set up its Centre for Policy Studies as an independent Academic Unit of the Institute.  This is the culmination of an almost decade-long debate on how to do it, not on whether to do it. The Centre proposes to start a Doctoral programme from July 2017 and a Masters programme from the next academic year, i.e., 2018. In the meantime, it has initiated a monthly “Development discourse series” on topics of current policy interest. It is also proposing to hold an Annual Policy Dialogue every year as a conversation between the technologists and social scientists in the presence of policy practitioners. The theme this year is “Coping with COP 21 – Life after Paris”. The dialogue hopes to bring together different viewpoints together and a publication thereof.

A dialogue between technical and social science disciplines on policy issues is the need of the hour especially when policy issues are increasingly required to appreciate technological dimension of different issues. IIT Bombay has the ability to combine these two strands drawing upon the expertise within the Institute, as well as in collaboration with other Institutions. This approach will inform the research agenda of the Centre in the years to come.

We therefore would like to stay away from a competitive think tank mode and will prefer to work in a collaborative mode. There are areas where more than one institution could combine their individual strengths and create a synergy thereby. Such a hub-and-spoke model, where the Centre is sometimes a hub and sometimes a spoke, will be useful to all stakeholders.

The Centre would like to accord priority to areas where the Institute Faculty has interest and strength. A number of faculty members have opined that they would like to carry out their policy-related research under the aegis of the Centre and not in the individual technical department/Centre. However, to decide inter se priorities in the short and medium terms, the Centre will be guided by the advice of a Committee headed by Dr Kakodkar. Within the Institute too, we propose to follow a hub-and-spoke model with a lean Policy faculty which will collaborate with the faculty in individual domain(s), supported by Post-Doctoral Fellows.

Policy research today requires a credible publication platform. However, it will be a tall order for an individual entity to carry out this exercise. We intend to explore the possibility of an inter-institution effort for a Policy Quarterly, where a given Institute can be the host for one issue. Such collaborative approach is not quite our tradition; we prefer to work in a “Rajput warrior mode,” but the effort is worth a try and can be of help to the emerging Policy discipline. A lead taken by IIT Bombay for such a purpose may probably be accepted by most stakeholders.

These are early days, but we hope this approach will stand all of us in good stead. In the post-truth world, where short cuts may become the flavour of the day, projecting enduring truth through serious research becomes the duty of all of us.

Article - Dr. Shyamika

Building a Research Agenda 

Dr. Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits (PhD)
Researcher at International Institute of Social StudiesErasmus University RotterdamThe Netherlands
My main areas of research are situated between the fields of Development and Conflict and the nexus of Development, Violent Conflict and Peace. In these fields, I often find the problems that demand scholarly attention are not ‘any other problems’ but ‘wicked problems’. Wicked problems are problems worth solving, but also problems that are difficult, impossible or seemingly impossible to solve due to various reasons (Rittel and Webber 1973). These reasons can be incomplete or contradictory knowledge; the sheer number of epistemic communities, diversity and competing discourses involved; and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Thus, thinking in terms of ‘wicked problems’ from the very beginning gives the researcher the opportunity to be flexible and creative in the design process and eventually to build a robust, transformative and impactful research agenda that closely reflects the realities on the ground. However, pursing this path requires a great deal of intellectual stamina, cultivating a healthy attitude for serendipity and sometimes also brevity to walk around with a ‘black sheep’ label among the academic peers.

So, what are the implications of this orientation towards ‘wicked problems’ on the methodology? Do we have the necessary ‘tools’ to follow this path? Here, I have found the answers in the development of broader frameworks/approaches (i.e., Governance and Human Security) and new conceptual and theoretical categories. These allow me to break through the academic silos and engage simultaneously with multiple levels of analysis anchored in one framework. For example, my current research work investigating security sector reforms (SSRs) undertaken by the European Union is anchored in the broader framework of governance with an explicit normative-intellectual commitment to the human security approach. By framing broadly, I have been able to analyse these reforms from a top-down state-centric level as well as from a bottom-up community-centric level. While the top-down approach allows an analysis at the formal-institutional level, the bottom-up approach lends space for analysing the non-formal and semi-formal levels of analysis of the security actors and their security arrangements at everyday spheres of life. Combined together, they help paint a picture of ‘security governance’ by simultaneously privileging ‘broad and specific’, ‘State and community’ and ‘formal and informal’.  According to some critics, a broader approach means ‘sans-depth’. But I would argue it is the opposite, particularly if you are a creative researcher and your research agenda rests on trans-disciplinarity (as opposed to the conventional mono-disciplinary and even multidisciplinary approaches). Thus, balancing the breadth and depth of a research agenda and making sure that it is practical and implementable is a real challenge, a challenge that is worth embracing whereby the ‘artist in the scientist’ needs to be discovered. From an ethical point of view, if it does not help bring about the desired social change, a research agenda that is built on a mixed ‘broad-deep’ approach could at least help mitigate the negative impacts of the research on our research subjects, whom we have pledged to protect. Last, but not the least, to go further down this road, as researchers we must cultivate ‘perseverance’ in ourselves. It is not because the wicked problems require it, but because they also demand the researchers to resist temptations to sacrifice perseverance over other pressures such as deadlines, funding conditionalities and the unhealthy rewarding systems in the academia.

Article - Leandro & Andrea

Drafting and validating your research agenda

Leandro Echt
General Coordinator of Politics & Ideas; Coordinator of the On Think Tanks School and Editor for Latin America 

Andrea Ordoñez
Associate at Politics & Ideas; Research Coordinator at Southern Voice
Researching is at the heart of what think tanks and research centres do. It is so strongly embedded in their DNA that it is often taken for granted and conducted with no clear strategy. How often do think tanks reflect on the excellence of their research agenda? How do they ensure its relevance for decision making?

Convinced of the idea that doing policy relevant research is just as important as communicating or disseminating it effectively to ensure its impact on policy, in 2015 we embarked on the development of a course to help think tanks in their efforts to design and implement policy relevant research agendas (the course is offered by the On Think Tanks School).

We started by putting forward seven principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice:

1. Embedded in policy context
2. Internally and externally validated
3. Responds to policy questions and objectives
4. Fit for purpose and timely
5. Crafted with an analytical and policy perspective
6. Open to change and innovation: as it interacts with policy spaces and policymakers
7. Realistic about institutional capacity and funding opportunities

Let us focus on the second principle: a policy relevant research agenda should be internally and externally validated.

Once one has analysed the context and defined the main components of a research agenda (you can read more about this in this series), the challenge is: how do we actually go about validating it? How do we collect information and knowledge to create a proper analysis of the context so that we can keep policy influence in the loop? Also, how do we receive and process inputs from both internal and external stakeholders?

The process of drafting a policy relevant research agenda is an endeavour that requires both internal organisation and planning and external engagement with key stakeholders. Without connecting our initial ideas and interests with the opinions and needs of others, the research agenda might become only a wish-list, disconnected from reality, and lacking social and political relevance. The figure below summarises the key aspects of this process that will be detailed in the following subsections.

The four steps are important to ensure relevance and increase the chance of impact of think tanks research agendas. The four steps are addressed in our course. In this article we will focus on step 2 of the process, illustrated in the figure.

The policy relevant research process

The cycle of developing a research agenda includes four general steps: 1) an internal process of brainstorming and discussions, 2) engagement with relevant stakeholders 3) inclusion and arbitrage of the suggestions received and 4) communicating the agenda.

Deciding on levels and methods of engagement with stakeholders

Within the internal discussion (step 1; which can take place within each team, or institutionally) there must be an agreement about which other external stakeholders should also be engaged, including how to do it. It is advisable that various staff members are involved in defining this (though different areas could make different decisions, given that each one might have diverse expertise and connections with key stakeholders).

Possible stakeholders include other researchers and experts, former and current policymakers, and representatives of civil society, among others. But beyond their nominal labels, what is critical is to understand the roles they play in a policy process and what research can bring to their table.

But before approaching some of the most critical stakeholders about your research topics, it is important to also clarify, within the think tank, what level of engagement is desired and what is the objective of the engagement. Do you want to just gain an understanding of their priorities? Do you want to develop partnerships? What can the stakeholders expect from relating to you? Based on the work of Van de Ven on engaged scholarship, here we present four levels of engagement as an initial guideline:

• Direct or indirect consultation: In some policy contexts, think tanks cannot approach all their stakeholders for direct involvement. This is the case of settings where governments are not open to independent voices. It could also be difficult for newer think tanks to get active participation of others in the development of a research agenda. In this case, the understanding of needs and priorities might have to be done indirectly. For example, through more general interviews, an analysis of newspapers articles and interviews of policymakers or review of public documents. Of course, not having direct contact with policymakers may be a drawback. However, it is important to note that, even in the toughest environments, creative strategies can be set in place to understand the positions of other stakeholders and include them in the research agenda.

• Advisory: In this model, a think tank invites some key stakeholders to formally or informally inform the research agenda. Thus, the think tank maintains full control of the agenda and can take up, or not, the comments and suggestions from the advisors. This model is usually very detached, with occasional participations (i.e. workshops, year or bi-annual conferences, ad hoc meetings, etc.). It might not lead to long-term relationships but it might get you a wider range of perspectives from participants. In this model, the advisors are not necessarily direct beneficiaries of the research, but can guide with their expertise.

• Exchange: In this form of engagement, the stakeholders are clearly the users of the research. The engagement is different than that of the advisor because the stakeholders may be directly affected by the research. This is particularly the case of research that is evaluative or action research. In both these cases, the researcher maintains an outsider’s perspective but needs insider access to information and processes. Unlike the advisory model, in this case, the other stakeholders can be affected by the research and may also have a strong influence on the research process. Ideally, however, the researcher maintains a high level of independence from the users.

• Collaboration: In a collaborative engagement, the partner policy institution, NGO or business holds equal stakes in the project. In this case, the research is the result of an explicit negotiation of priorities and the outcomes are shared between the think tank and the partners. The role of the partners is much more intensive and may even divert the course of a project from what the think tank expected in the beginning. In the case where the partner is a public institution, the results of a project will be affected by its public positioning. On the other hand, their in-depth participation may result in greater impact since the outcomes might be more likely to be implemented or applied by the partner. This higher possibility of impact may affect the think tank’s full ownership of the research.

As it happens in multi stakeholder processes, there are no recipes. The level of engagement appropriate for a think tank will depend heavily on its contacts, capacity and ethos. It might also vary from more established areas to new ones. Whichever is the case, the think tank’s management staff must have a clear understanding of the level of engagement from each group/profile. These principles must also be transmitted as clearly as possible to the rest of the staff and relevant stakeholders. The process of deciding the level of engagement is complicated, and must also be adaptive.