Interaction between researchers and decision-makers: first, do no harm.

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By Laurenz Langer

This is the second blog discussing a recent paper by DPME’s Harsha Dayal on the use of evidence to reflect on South Africa’s 20 years of democracy. The first AEN blog introducing the paper can be found here and the paper itself is available open-access here. This second blog will zoom in on some of the rich insights about policy-makers’ perspectives on the use of evidence that Harsha reports. In particular, it aims to unpack policy-makers’ reflections on their interactions with researchers and whether these are conducive to their use of evidence. Naturally, this is of key interest to the Africa Evidence Network: aiming to build relationships between research and policy, and connecting individuals and organisations with complimentary skills sets and overlapping interests is at the heart of what the Network sets out to do. From Harsha’s paper, there is lots of encouraging insights. For example, she explains how ‘overcoming the research-policy divide is not just about bridging the gap through intermediaries who can translate research and other evidence into strategic and policy relevance’. Rather, ‘it involves building effective relationships and collaborative networks’(Dayal 2016: v). However, we should not engage on an unqualified celebration of researcher and decision-maker interaction. Harsha’s paper as well as our own experiences at the AEN require us to first take a step back and interrogate what outcome and change it is that we would like to result from increased interactions and engagements; and also, whether fostering interactions is always the right starting point.

First, do no harm—is a principle throughout healthcare, but also an established guide to policy and programme design in the humanitarian sector and other areas of social policy and intervention. While on a first glance encouraging interaction and relationship-building between decision-makers and researchers seems like a fairly uncontroversial intervention, it presents an intervention nevertheless; and from years of research we have countless  examples that whenever humans actively intervene in social processes ‘good intentions and plausible theories alone are an insufficient basis for decisions (…)’. From microfinance to civic education, agricultural export support subsidies and ‘1 million t-shirts for Africa’, the list of well-intended policies and interventions that have actively done harm can and is being extended. Thus, the do-no-harm principle equally applies to interventions facilitating interaction between researchers and decision-makers. And there is good reason to do so, as the below four examples from a South African context illustrate:

1)    Evidence-based policy-making is ‘overrated’, said the science council to the government department

One would assume that if there is reluctance to support the use of research evidence in decision-making, such reluctance would come from government officials and not from researchers. However, as Harsha outlines, when undertaking the 20 year review, it came as a surprise to learn that a lack of ease on the discourse of evidence-based policy-making came not only from some government colleagues, but also from prominent researchers in the country and the national science councils themselves! The Academy of Science of South Africa called evidence-based policy-making overrated while Du Toit in a review paper on the same issue claimed it to be a ‘meta-political project’ (cited in Dayal 2016: 5). Two weeks ago, Jonathan Timm from DPME presented a seminar at the University of Johannesburg to report on the implementation of the citizen-based monitoring framework as a new form of localised and bottom-up evidence to support policy-making. The response from the discussant, a senior sociologist at the University, was to elaborate how such government-enacted civic participation was a neo-liberal attempt to co-opt democratic forces in the country… So, is encouraging government-research interaction really always such a benign intervention, or is there a risk to cause real harm if evidence-eager decision-makers in government take time out of their schedules to interact with a research community, which, frankly, thinks evidence-based policy-making is either pointless or a government conspiracy?  What do you do if senior public service managers are more excited about the idea and methods of EIDM than the academics supposed to generate such evidence—do you really call for more joint interaction and engagement?

2)    Interaction without transformation?

Interaction between decision-makers and researchers in South Africa is embedded in historic and socio-economic contexts. What Harsha calls ‘a question of trust’ (p5) refers to the legacy in which social science evidence in South Africa was generated to justify apartheid policies and the oppression of the majority of the country’s population. Are we really expecting decision-makers to listen to social science researchers, when in the very recent past these decision-makers were deemed unfit by ‘scientific evidence’ to attend university? As long as academia in the country is not moving closer towards transformation, how can we unequivocally call for a greater interaction between these two groups? Personal connections between decision-makers and researchers often do not exist in South Africa as, unlike other countries, in many cases these individuals did not attend the same universities or take part in the same exchange programmes; rather many of today’s civil servants were forced into resistance and exile by policies to which some researchers gave a ‘scientific touch’. This is a legacy to be addressed and raises a number of flags when advocating for more engagement and interaction.

3)    Interaction for what?

OK, so let’s assume for a minute that we have identified a group of researchers who support EIDM and who are likewise accepted and given a mandate by government colleagues; and let’s also assume they all get along really well and everybody is equally excited about the use of evidence. The call for a new Rapid Evidence Assessment by government comes quickly, and then… silence, no one bids. If government develops an appetite for evidence, it would be a very frustrating experience if this demand cannot be met by an adequate local supply of research evidence. While this is an hypothetical example, the number of formal research courses at South African universities that produce graduates skilled to conduct an Impact Evaluation (two) or a systematic review and meta-analysis (one), might indicate a real risk for this example to turn reality. Similarly, interaction needs to be sustained for trusted relationships to develop. Alas, institutional incentives for researchers to take up knowledge brokering posts or mentorship positions are currently not in place. The National Research Foundation does not reward universities for achieving research uptake leaving sustained interaction and knowledge brokering at a high opportunity cost for researchers. Decision-makers then, too, have an opportunity cost to engagement, which is likely to increase every time a commenced interaction is not followed through with an adequate supply of research evidence.

4)    The luxury problem? Interaction as a burden.

A different sort of risk to the unequivocal support for interaction between decision-makers and researchers emerges if such interactions lead to a research fatigue by decision-makers. Arguably, this is not an imminent risk in the South African context, but have a look at the below quotes from Mark Reed’s excellent blog on the situation in the UK:

  • ‘There remains a growing sense of exasperation within Whitehall (UK government) and beyond at the well-meaning but ill-informed and sometimes inappropriate advances of researchers whose primary motivation for engaging is career progression.’
  • ‘The cynicism among “research users” is now so great that no amount of leadership from university managers or research funders can dispel it.’

The above examples underline the real risk of doing harm when facilitating interactions between decision-makers and researchers. This by no means suggests that we should not invest in engagement and relationship-building; but it does suggest that as with any social intervention, we need to carefully craft a theory of change for interaction and subsequently evaluate its impact. Fortunately, Harsha’s paper makes some insightful suggestions in this regard too. So make sure to keep an eye out for the final blog in our mini-series on the Use of Evidence to Reflect on South Africa’s 20 Years of Democracy. Our working title for the next blog so far: ‘Supporting interaction and relationships between decision-makers and researchers: a tale of co-production, trusted mandates, and evidence use.’

This blog is intended to stimulate debate and does not claim to present a complete argument or a comprehensive review of the role and effects of interaction between decision-makers and researchers. We encourage readers to send us their thoughts and feedback on how this relates to their experiences of working in the EIDM space in South Africa; and while we will publish a follow-on blog too, we would be very interested in publishing response blogs from readers and AEN members as well.