The African Evidence Network (AEN): Spearheading the annihilation of the researcher-policy maker incompatibility fallacy

By Louis Gerald Maluwa

Colloquium 2014 photo option

Delegates at the Africa Evidence Network Colloquium at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa from the 25th-28th of November 2014. 

At some point in life, one experiences what may be regarded as the most exciting moments in life – I am experiencing one such moment right now.

To get a clear understanding of my story, let me start by introducing myself. I am a member of the Africa Evidence Network (AEN), a community of people who work in Africa and have an interest in evidence, its production and use in decision-making – in other words, evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM). To this end, the AEN consists of researchers and policy makers from governments, universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – I fall under the former category, i.e. researchers. The exciting thing about being an AEN member – an active one for that matter – is that one gets to understand the ‘researcher-policy maker’ interface which, often times, is viewed by some as a mark of division or contention rather than complementarity in the EIDM space. Not that I blame the sceptics anyway, and I’ll tell you why.

Hypothetically speaking, researchers and policy-makers should work well in the EIDM space. Policy-makers need to provide researchers with priority research areas in which they seek evidence, and, in return, researchers should provide policy makers with the evidence they need (Choi et al. 2005). As a result, EIDM should be an easy venture. Very simple! Sadly, in practice, things do not always work that way, most notably on account of the different environments in which the two EIDM role players (i.e. researchers and policy makers) work. Quite often, the two actors differ in their goals, languages, time-consciousness, and accountabilities. In terms of goals, Lee and Belohlav (2014) argue that the ultimate goal of a researcher is, normally, to advance knowledge, and a key activity is to write or publish papers which add to the body of knowledge. In essence, and as often is the saying in the research world, researchers either ‘publish or perish’. On the other hand, the ultimate goal of a policy maker is to obtain popular support, and a key activity is to ‘put out fires’ (i.e. to manage political crises) (Choi et al. 2005). With respect to the languages used in the two camps, it has been observed that researchers speak a language that is hardly understood by non-scientists, or even scientists in a different field. Likewise, policy makers speak their own language as well – a language that Choi et al. (2005) believe is often targeted at closed audience and driven by political agendas. In terms of time-consciousness, time seems to work wonders for researchers, as it is generally believed that ‘the longer it takes to do a research study, the better the research quality is’ (Choi et al. 2005). This is unlike the notion in the policy maker’s camp, where ‘time is everything’.  A policy maker often wants answers now, in which case research quality may be compromised. Finally, with respect to accountabilities, Choi et al. (2005) argue that researchers are essentially accountable to editors of peer reviewed journals and grant funders and may, therefore, not be required to focus on policy relevant issues. On the other hand, policy makers are usually accountable to political parties, government, and the public. As such, they are compelled to focus on issues that are consistent with political agendas (Choi et al. 2005).

Thus far, one can possibly see why I mentioned earlier on that I don’t necessarily blame those that are sceptical about researchers and policy makers working together in the EIDM space. The goals, languages, time-consciousness and accountabilities in the two camps seem to be different. The question, then, is: Would it be wrong, under these circumstances, to contend that the two EIDM counterparts are incompatible in the EIDM space as some would argue?

Here, the AEN – the Network to which I belong – comes in with a well-researched and well-balanced response: the researcher-policy maker incompatibility notion is nothing but a fallacy. The AEN believes that EIDM can better be achieved on the African continent and beyond if researchers and policy makers collaborate their efforts in the EIDM space. For the AEN, this belief in ‘results-through-collaboration’ is not just a theory, but something that can be proven through the AEN’s own track record. In this regard, it is amazing that between January 2014 and June 2016, AEN membership has grown from 23 to over 600, with over 19 000 EIDM resource downloads from the AEN website within the same period. Also, member engagement on the AEN twitter account is very high, with over 760 followers so far. Furthermore, 14 films have so far been published on the AEN’s YouTube Channel, and more than 900 views have so far been recorded of these films. Mention should also be made of the number of people that have been attending AEN events since the Network’s creation – to date more than 400 people have attended AEN events, with the highest recording made during the Network’s first ever Colloquium in November 2014 where more than 120 people attended the event. It is expected that a lot more people will attend the upcoming AEN Conference which will be held in Pretoria, South Africa, between 20-22 September 2016. All this is a result of people’s understanding and appreciation of the work that the AEN is doing in bringing together the EIDM community of practice, and making them realise that together they can help in making evidence-informed policy and practice a reality across the African region and beyond.

A final word to the EIDM community of practice: if you want to contribute meaningfully to the success of the EIDM notion, and, along the way share the excitement that I currently have as a result of learning from, and collaborating with, other role players in the EIDM space, then look no further than the AEN – it is the only place to be.