The role of the researcher in policy making – thoughts from the recent PLAAS conference

I attended the Politics of poverty research symposium organised by PLAAS.  It was a great space to discuss some of the tensions inherent in the use of evidence in policy making and explore how those tensions affect researchers (particularly social science researchers) and policy makers.  Reflecting on some of the discussions from the conference a few points struck me about the role of the researcher in the policy making process which I thought would be worth sharing.

The tensions of impact and policy influence – we often talk about impact and policy influence as good things.  Indeed donors push for policy impact for the projects they fund before the research is even carried out creating a situation in which impact and influence are perceived as the goal of research.  Some participants talked about the researchers wanting to get their wording or language into a policy document but what comes after that?  Something that we don’t talk about or maybe we dismiss is that impact and influence can also be negative.  That can be illustrated by the role people like Peter Deusberg had in providing scientific credibility to the Mbeki government’s policy on AIDS in South Africa.  This policy was clearly not based on the body of evidence but rather selective use of research and researchers.  I imagine there must be other examples, hopefully with less disastrous consequences, of research used in such a way and researchers undoubtedly having influence.

So if not influence, what then?  In one of the breakout groups, amongst other things, we discussed what role researchers should have in the provision of evidence.  It made me think that surely researchers produce data, someone else decides if this is evidence based on whatever point or decision it is they are trying to make.  At best we hope the person making this decision has access to the body of evidence and has the motivation and necessary skills to judge the quality and robustness of the data.  This may make some researchers feel uncomfortable – questions were raised such as ‘do researchers want to frame their own findings or are they happy with others framing it freely?’  There is clearly room for both.  As a researcher you interpret your findings and frame it based on your understanding but others can (and usually will) take that data and interpret in different ways.  Indeed that is one way research progresses.  It is difficult to imagine a situation where only one interpretation of the research is valid and when researchers get into the business of producing evidence it brings all sorts of value judgements into play (I am not suggesting researchers are value-neutral).

My final reflection is policy making is not an end in itself; surely it is eventually about social change?  Many people who work in this area (myself included) have focused so much on supporting the use of evidence in policy making that we sometimes forget that that is just the beginning.  In many cases evidence informed policies are not lacking, the problem comes after the policies are written down – how do we engage with those outside the policy making sphere to ensure that we can support those processes of social change?  A recent paper and comment by Ajoy Datta from RAPID looks at some of these issues here and here.


About Alex Ademokun

Alex Ademokun Senior Programme Manager for the Evidence-Informed Policy Making team at INASP and the Director of the the VakaYiko Consortium.
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