Why invest in building governments’ capacity to use research evidence?

kirstyGuest blog:

Dr Kirsty Newman, Team Leader, Evidence into Action Team, Department for International Development, UK.

5th June 2014

DFID’s Research Division spends a lot of money on generating and communicating research evidence: they support multimillion pound research programmes; channel significant amounts of funding into synthesising, communicating research results; and support a number of knowledge sharing platforms. When I first joined DFID, I remember feeling excited about all the work we were supporting – but also worried that it was all a bit one sided; we seemed to be putting a huge amount of effort into the supply of research without giving that much thought to the demand.

My concerns were based on my personal experiences. Before joining DFID, I worked for a number of years with policy makers in Africa and Asia running a programme to support the use of research evidence to inform decision making. I trained, collaborated with and got to know many hundreds of civil servants, parliamentary clerks, researchers and librarians from the national governments and parliaments of more than 20 low-income countries.

And I was fairly confident that almost none of the work that DFID was doing to communicate research evidence was making any difference to them.

In all the many training sessions and conversations I had with these policy makers, I never met one who had heard of DFID-funded portals such as Eldis or Scidev. The vast majority of those I worked with were not familiar with the basics of research – they had not heard of an abstract or a systematic review and they would not be able to distinguish between observational or experimental methodologies.

These people were not stupid. They didn’t know about these things because these things were not considered important to the jobs they were doing. Knowledge of research was not prioritised in recruitment and therefore very few people who understood research were employed in the policy making organisations I worked with. And once people started working there, there were no incentives to improve their skills and understanding of research.

This may all sound a bit depressing, but there was one silver lining. In just about every policy making organisation I have ever worked in, I can think of at least one individual – sometimes many – who wanted to change this situation. People who understood that research could really improve the quality of policy makers’ decisions and who wanted to grasp opportunities to make that happen. My work largely consisted of seeking out these islands of enthusiasm and then doing what I could to support them!

Given this experience, when I joined DFID I knew that it was vital to support not only the supply of research but also the capacity, incentives and systems to allow decision makers to use research. I also knew that the work was difficult, slow and prone to failure – but that it was possible to make progress by working with people on the inside who were determined to drive change.

This conviction is what led me and colleagues from DFID’s Evidence into Action team to launch the ‘Building Capacity to Use Research Evidence (BCURE) Programme’. BCURE supports six programmes working across 12 countries, each of which aims to support decision makers to use evidence to inform policy making. The six programmes are very different but they share a commitment to support local policy makers and policy making organisations to make use of the most relevant research to improve the quality of decision making.

I am delighted that one of those programmes – run by the University of Johannesburg – has launched the African Evidence Network. I am convinced that supporting policy makers who have a passion for evidence and taking a little by little approach to linking up those islands of enthusiasm is the key to making sure that development research really benefits those it is intended to.