Reporting Research

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‘From Research to Advocacy’ – The Debate

Many researchers would like to see their work inform, inspire and influence policy-makers and practitioners, but they often struggle to get their work noticed and utilised. On the other hand, advocacy organisations are good at reaching the general public and policy-makers with their messages, but they often lack a strong and sufficient evidence base. Meanwhile the target of both academics and advocates are policy-makers who have to balance politics with evidence-based policy LIDC – ONE roundtable 28th November 2011.

Last night, the London International Development Centre and advocacy group ONE hosted an event as part of their series on ‘New Approaches to Development’ to debate the link between academic research and advocacy for development.  The event was moderated by Lucy Lamble, Global Development editor for the Guardian.  The panel included Chris Whitty, Head of Research, DFID and Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Angela Little, Professor at the Institute of Education, and Jamie Drummond, Executive Director of ONE.

Chris Whitty said that advocacy provided an ‘operating space’ for change to happen, while research can identify where things are not working and advance knowledge.  “If it is to be useful and believed, it must be neutral,” he emphasized and said that evidence should drive advocacy (and not the other way around).

Angela Little spoke of ‘two discourses’, one of optimism and moving forward (advocacy) and one of inquiry and evidence (research).  She worried about any advocacy that “ignores, distorts, or exaggerates” to make its case.

Jamie Drummond highlighted that the political process doesn’t always allow for the right decisions to be made for the right reasons.  He said that with advocacy campaigns, facts were not enough – the messages also have to be marketable to the public.

The debate revealed a number of questions, challenges and tensions:

  • Where is the research? asked Jamie, “We have to go and find it”.  The panel discussed the challenges of repackaging research for non-academics, and the need to tailor information for a variety of different audiences.
  • Consensus or confusion – It can be difficult for advocates to know where there is enough evidence pointing in one direction to put their weight behind and scale up.  Indeed, the evidence of need is quite coherent (e.g. where are most people starving, poor, dying), evidence of impact is more complex.
  • Context is critical – In the field of education, there is little evidence that holds across countries and contexts.   – the local context is important and evidence should not be too readily generalised.
  • Politics takes precedence.  Even when there is strong evidence in one area, political preferences can take precedence.  For example, if politician needs more women voters, they will be on the lookout to champion causes with a gender angle (and less open to some other agendas).
  • Speed  –The operating speed of researchers and policymakers can be vastly different (in his experience, 3 months minimum for researchers even for a literature review versus often 5 days maximum for policymakers to take a decision)
  • Evidence versus importance – A concern was raised that the evidence agenda would favour certain causes (such as health, which has a relatively strong evidence-base) over others (such as education and governance, which have less well developed evidence-bases), despite the importance of these latter areas for development.

Overall there was a sense of optimism, with all panellists stating that there has been much progress in the last five years, with development practitioners and advocacy groups regarding evidence as valuable to inform their work and researchers keen to have wider societal impact as a result of their academic work.  Lucy Lamble summed up three take-away points: (1) the need to focus more on synthesis of existing research to respond to policy questions, (2) to be more honest about the limits of the evidence-base, (3) that not all policy can be based on evidence alone.

For more information on LIDC’s event series:


Female student in the Al Azhar University Population Studies and Research Centre, Cairo, Egypt - Trygve Bolstad/Panos Pictures

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