Some weeks ago, members of the Evidence-Based Policy in Development Network (EBPDN) had an interesting debate on what universities could do to get their academic research “out there”. Many good ideas emerged from the discussion. EBPDN coordinator at the Overseas Development Institute Clara Richards summarised the discussion, giving some examples and resources. This is the gist of the discussion.
The debate started with us brainstorming ideas. One shared by Enrique Mendizabal overarches all: Universities can influence policy by educating competent professionals (who will go on to work in government, political parties, NGOs, the private sector, think tanks, etc.) conducting excellent research (often on things that are not urgent but nonetheless important) and promoting—but not being responsible for—by their mere presence a culture that values knowledge.
This is the ideal and universities should probably aim to take other steps, either to enhance the knowledge they produce or to try to get to that stage. A clarification: It is one thing to influence development policy (that is, universities from the North working towards influencing policy in the South) but another to influence public policy (a university in the South influencing policy in their own country).
Below are some tips that came up in the discussion:
• They can become influential agents in this field thanks to their expertise, continuous research, reliability and efficiency of its professionals.
• They can partner with other universities and work on developing networks. Someone at the World Bank said, "Unless academic researchers are plugged into this network, I suspect their stuff will probably fly under the radar.”
• Allowing professors and researchers to work for public development institutions for a medium-term period to facilitate knowledge transfer.
An example from Colombia was the publication of open letters directed at policymakers on particular issues at times of hot debates. This is a way for people to create windows of opportunities to shape the formulation and implementation of policies when immersed into the culture. If the first signatures on a letter belong to authoritative and respected people, they provoke a lot of interest. These may attract the interest of newspapers and citizen networks, and promote collective narratives that might act as catalysts. (This is also good for other organisations such as think tanks or policy research institutes.)
• The importance of collective action came up: No single or isolated sector in society can accomplish the desired changes.
• Universities should update their methods and contents to enable their students to face a very fast-changing world of knowledge.
• They can create policy research institutes to focus research on priority areas.
• They can offer genuine advancement in terms of methodology or (less often) theory.
• If you want your research to be influential, one of the most important factors is that it is published and easily “findable” on key databases.
• Research should respond to issues that are policy relevant.
• Research needs to be of high enough quality to get included in a synthesis—that is, research methods employed need to be clearly and transparently explained.
• Research should be written in a way that is understandable to policymakers.
• Blogs and Twitter can be good ways to get your message out.
• Academics could adopt the use of the science cafe as a formal and informal research communication tool. The science cafe creates a conducive environment to communicate science or research.
Three specific strategies that stood out:
• Applied works, shared by Francisco Perez. Programmes and policy designs are assessed or even facilitated. This entails working with public officials to enhance and/or find ways to improve the implementation mechanism.
• Bringing to debates topics that you want to be prioritised. Hopefully this will then be picked up by government to find a way of moving it forward. An example from Nicaragua is one that started a discussion about the implications of monopoly powers in input markets for small enterprises; it concerned the minimum level of investment for accessing incentives in rural tourism. Now they are talking with government about how public policies might help small farmers transform products and gain more direct access to markets. This was also shared by Francisco Perez.
• Students can write research/policy/project management papers for a need identified by a local government unit. This was suggested by Anne La Candelaria. She explained that at her university in Manila they sit down with community partners prior to the beginning of the semester and plan with them. Part of the “planning” is needs identification. Towards the end of the semester, the students present the findings and recommendations to the local policymakers and get their comments, suggestions and other additional inputs. The students then revise accordingly and submit two copies of their paper at the end of the semester—one to the department and the other one to the community partner. Mostly the papers are used to inform policy needs. She thinks what makes this work is that:
(1) The policymakers were part of the process from beginning to end, hence there is a sense of ownership;
(2) Because this is weaved into the classroom practice (rather than viewed as an “extension” or “service” of what the university does), it is more attractive to faculty members who have very little time to spare outside of teaching; and
(3) The “cost” to facilitate/run this is built into the “classroom cost” (for lack of a better term), which is more efficient and sustainable.