Communicating research – uptake, influence and change

The New Year encourages a revival of good intentions and resolutions to work harder at ensuring our research contributes to change.

Rosalind Goodrich's picture
Insight by 
Rosalind Goodrich
15 January 2015
Global Water Initiative – West Africa
The Global Water Initiative sought to improve global food security by enabling farmers to better access, manage and use water resources for sustainable agricultural production
A researcher talking with a cotton farmer in Mozambique. Communicating our findings to a wide range of key audiences is central to our work (Photo: Mike Goldwater)

A researcher talking with a cotton farmer in Mozambique. Communicating our findings to a wide range of key audiences is central to our work (Photo: Copyright Mike Goldwater)

IIED wants the research it carries out with partners to be available to the wider world, increasing the potential to influence policy and practical change. As research communications manager, supporting this aim is a key part of my role, and so at a recent event focusing on how funders can contribute to more effective research uptake I was keen to hear the perspectives and experience of other participants.  

Before the event, co-hosted by the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), I mapped out what IIED has been doing to maximise the potential of the research it produces. I wanted to have a clear idea of what we had achieved and how we might do even more, backed up by enlightened funders. The exercise showed how far IIED has come in the past ten years, but also highlighted areas we need to strengthen.

So I set myself a New Year’s resolution to work with renewed vigour to achieve our research and communications outcomes and contribute to impact and change.

Research is a global public good

We believe research findings are a global public good and as such we want to do all that we can to raise their profile in a timely and relevant way and make them accessible to anyone. The IIED approach, therefore, has been characterised by a desire to think strategically about how communications and engagement can be used to support researchers to do this.

More often than not this will involve our partners because knowing the local context, the political and power dynamics and the players is key to any strategy's success.

We are not the only ones to prioritise this: the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex for example – another participant at the UKDCS/NWO day – has developed a concept of 'Engaged Excellence' for research uptake. But getting the strategy right also means building the skills of IIED researchers and involving communications specialists in project design from an early stage.

Building capacity

To that end, in the past five years IIED has created new posts focusing on writing for impact, audience development, digital content, and research communications. Gone are the days, for instance, when a researcher can get away with producing a jargon-filled piece of research content, not know who they are writing for, or why or how they want the reader to respond.

Now, all our research groups are supported to map out the people and organisations with a potential stake in their projects, decide on priority audiences for communications and engagement – and think through the best ways to engage. This not only applies to communicating the research findings but, where relevant, influences the project methodology itself.

Building relationships with these people, who might be farmers and traditional leaders, academics or government ministers, with or without access to digital technology and with limited or plenty of time, is important for fulfilling project outcomes, so we spend time thinking through how to find out what they want and need, and how these needs may change over time.

Our partners are vital to providing this intelligence. This is a natural part of all our ongoing relationships, but we also organise regular 'learning weeks' when staff from partner organisations spend time with the IIED communications team. These are invaluable opportunities for mutual learning: as much a chance to build capacity as to understand better the context in which we are all trying to influence policy and change using research evidence.

Mutual appreciation

While there still are instances of 'if only we'd known about that, we could have suggested…', the communications team has become more systematic about being involved in proposal design and researchers are more aware of how communications and engagement can help them. It's fair to say that there's an ongoing culture shift and greater mutual appreciation of respective skills, which has exciting potential.

We are experimenting with different ways of working where researchers and communication specialists are collaborating to add to the potential of research and information uptake. With our work with the Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES) partnership, for example, IIED contributes to analysis of the political economy around natural capital accounting in project countries and advises on in-country strategic and practical communications to raise awareness and engagement of the issue.

With the Global Water Initiative in West Africa, the communications manager is embedded in the research programme but sits within the central communications team so that she can both immerse herself in the project and link up with other organisational initiatives to optimise the impact of what she is doing.

Key to our strategy

Communications is also central to project design in the four change initiatives (rights plus action, international engagement for a sustainable planet, inclusive transitions to climate resilience and green economy, and fair consumption from sustainable food systems)  that form a key part of 'Engaging for change', our 2014-2019 organisational strategy.  

In doing this mapping I also realised that we should now do much deeper analysis across projects of what works and what doesn't in terms of communications, engagement and ultimately, what contributes to improved research uptake and policy influence.

It's easy to measure downloads and page visits, but that tells only a fraction of the story. We'd like to have the scope to be thorough and look at the influence of context, timing, methods, partner involvement, appropriateness of knowledge products, importance of relationships – I could go on.

This is an important issue for funders – and a funder that would support the time for this kind of evidence building would be welcomed enthusiastically. The resolve is there and with the New Year, it's time to get going.

Rosalind Goodrich ([email protected]) is research communications manager at IIED.