The interdisciplinary character of what we termed Action Research in Section 3A can serve to remind us that research uptake is not a concept exclusive to the “applied sciences,” nor is it a matter of simply reacting to the priorities of policy makers or other demand-side users. Rather, it is an approach to how research with any disciplinary background can be conducted to reach a wider pool of contributors and users, how partnerships and alliances can be formed and when, how different communication skills can be employed to drive impact, what evaluation methods can be employed to understand impact – and, critically, how the researchers themselves, at the heart of this process, are able to embed principles of uptake as part of their independently-derived and rigorously tested line of academic inquiry.
The graphic below, adapted and used at DRUSSA University Workshops across the five-year programme, illustrates the stages during which researchers can consider and apply research uptake approaches, drawing on channels of engagement that may already be partially established and lessons learned from previous collaboration.
We can start thinking about uptake in the research cycle from the Scoping stage, when the research project is first being conceptualised. At this early point, it will already be essential to consider not only who may be interested in applying the findings once the research is concluded, but who might be able to lend insight and knowledge into the research question itself. Where they exist, read evaluations of related research projects to ensure you are applying lessons and building institutional expertise in effective engagement – an array of research uptake literature, as published on the ACU’s DRUSSA Learning Resource, will also be useful as you look for examples that can be best adapted and adopted for your own research.
Once you have identified a range of stakeholders to engage, it will be critical to establish channels of communication early, and from the perspective that you regard their potential partnership as a “good in its own right” – that is to say, relationships with external stakeholders should not be purely transactional (or, rather, “project-based” and largely confined to a bounded exchange of goods or services), but rather transformational (or based on creating new and enduring ways of working, ways of collaborating, and ways of sourcing, communicating and applying knowledge together). Setting up meetings and conversations with potential stakeholders can thus benefit by beginning rather informally, allowing you to establish trust and understanding about each other’s institutional cultures, ways of working, priorities, constraints and strategic goals. To keep these relationships growing, attention should be paid to keeping contacts “warm,” connecting with you and your team regularly, even well before you begin to plan your project and formally establish something resembling a research partnership with established Terms of Reference.
At the Planning stage, researchers in concert with stakeholders can begin to map out joint activity, establish priorities, timelines, resources and objectives and begin to agree plans of action across the lifespan of the project. Beginning this process early is central to sustaining buy-in, strengthening two-way communication, maintaining trust and syncing up different knowledge bases. During planning, it will be critical to factor in adequate time and resource to ensure that regular meetings, updates and consultations wherever appropriate are agreed and established between collaborators, and that existing institutional professional resources (such as research management offices, public relations offices, ICT units and others) are factored in and utilised. Though there may not be a discrete “Research Uptake Office” in many institutions, research managers will be able to provide direct assistance and can help advise on research uptake planning.
Alongside resources within your own university, it will also be helpful to learn from others’ experience through consulting planning templates, reading guidelines and literature by other universities and research uptake bodies, and searching databases of good practice, such as the ACU’s DRUSSA Learning Resource. In one good example, the UK’s National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) has published a Guide to working with policy makers which sets out a range of approaches to research uptake planning with policymakers in particular. The guide includes tips from initiating contact, agreeing meeting programmes and agenda and communicating effectively right from the beginning. The guide also covers principles behind effective policy briefs for later stages in the research cycle, when you are ready to start communicating your findings with application in mind.
Once you are at an advanced stage of planning with your partners and stakeholders, it will be useful to create and agree a unified “Knowledge and Adoption Plan” that clearly identifies your engagement and communication activities, milestones, individuals responsible and discrete budgets. This will allow you to establish and agree amongst all responsible partners who will be doing what and when, what resources will be required to communicate and consult, which communication format(s) will be most effective at different stages of the project (i.e., frequent blogs and short online articles throughout the Implementation phase supplemented with policy briefs and newspaper articles during the Legacy phase) and how you will assess progress against these targets quarter by quarter. Even if such targets fall outside the explicit requirements of your research funders when you report to them, developing a Knowledge and Adoption Plan can assist you with final reporting, can improve the research outcomes and can help you to raise the visibility of your own research as well as bolstering your university’s reputation as an effective partner.
The Implementation stage for your project is a critical (and sometimes overlooked) phase of the research uptake element of the research cycle. During Scoping and Planning, it is not uncommon for research teams to put serious thinking behind who research stakeholders are, how to involve them and how findings will be communicated – and then for the teams to leave much of the conduct of this activity till the final Legacy stage. But, if uptake activity falls through the cracks during the intermediate Implementation phase, engagement and uptake during the Legacy phase can be compromised by stakeholder relationships that have gone cold, original uptake plans that have gone unrevised, impact evaluations that can be rushed or limited in scope – and because, once the project is winding down, it is not unlikely that you and your fellow researchers will be spending plenty of time trying to source new funding, rather than necessarily communicating your most recent results to new (and perhaps novel) audiences.
Rather than an additional post-hoc burden, maintaining and executing a robust Knowledge and Adoption Plan as part and parcel of the Implementation phase can improve research outcomes (by ensuring systematic review of practices and giving you information you may need if revising elements of your research focus or process) and minimise the amount of communication, evaluation and knowledge translation work you’d otherwise be trying to establish at the project’s end.
The Legacy phase of your research project is not the time to establish or rekindle relationships with your stakeholders (as they should already be close to your team and the research), but to deliver and discuss findings with these stakeholders as part of your now-regular conversations.
It is possible that not only the research question has changed in situ during the Implementation phase, informed by new knowledge as you have progressed, but that aspects of the Knowledge and Adoption Plan will have changed as well. Perhaps you will have originally planned to spend energy during your Legacy phase by writing and pitching short, newsworthy articles to print media houses – but, through your regular engagements with external stakeholders the Implementation phase, you built a solid social media following that has motivated you to focus more time on digital communications instead. Perhaps you had originally planned to go directly to ministries of national government with your research findings, but through the Implementation phase, you learned that there are local and district-level policymakers who are better situated to adopt and apply your findings in policy development.
In short, the Legacy phase can be dedicated to driving your research findings to reach your stakeholders in a form they can readily apply. This involves not only knowledge translation skills and the use of appropriate media, but also an application of lessons learned through the conduct of your research itself to ascertain if your potential audience has grown – or if there are other university, media or policy agents who can help you better leverage your findings than you had originally thought.
This is not where your Knowledge and Adoption Plan ends. You can continue to monitor which channels of engagement work best, where your research has been taken up, by whom and for what purpose, all to help you apply this experience in the design of your next project. This is where an assessment of research Outcomes needs to feed into the Scoping phase of your next research project – helping you to build a virtuous circle of good practice in research uptake. There are a range of evaluation resources, templates and tools available on the DRUSSA Learning Resource and through the UK’s National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, which you might find useful as you set about this process.
Things to think about
Considering the Research Cycle graphic above, at which stages have you traditionally engaged directly with research stakeholders (including human research subjects, control groups, policymakers at any level of government, media agents, business leaders, local communities, rural and remote populations, NGOs and civil society organisations, funding bodies and other academics)? What more would you do to engage them across each phase of the research cycle?
What institutional resources have you tended to draw on in setting up and sustaining constructive partnerships with external stakeholders? What other resources might exist (at your own university or at partner universities) to assist you in building stakeholder relationships and partnerships?
Things to do
Mapping your stakeholders, and assigning reflections and priorities to each type of stakeholder, can help you to focus your energies when establishing and sustaining external partnerships. Using this Stakeholder Mapping template, sit with research partners and colleagues to list out the potential external stakeholders associated with your current research project (both real and possible). Having listed these groups out, assign three scores against each stakeholder type, ranking each one from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) according to:
Relationship (i.e., how strong is your relationship and your channels of communication right now)
Priority (i.e., how important is this stakeholder to you in terms of giving greater visibility and effect to your research)
Strength (i.e., how effective and motivated do you believe this type of stakeholder is in taking up and applying your research findings)
Once you have scored each stakeholder type according to relationship, priority and strength, look for similarities and discrepancies in your scores. Do you seem to have excellent relationships with stakeholders who are perhaps not in the best position to apply your research findings? Have you assigned a high priority to a stakeholder group with whom you’ve not yet established a strong relationship? Any discrepancies in your scoring should not surprise you – rather, they represent clear opportunities to design focussed strategies to bring your scores into line and link your project and findings with the partners who are most receptive and best placed to bring your research into wider use.
Sara S (Saartjie) Grobbelaar, CREST, Stellenbosch University
This essay aims to examine stakeholder theory. The final section is more practical and guides the reader through the process of planning and implementing participation. The document contains an in-depth review of the field of stakeholder theory, followed by an analysis of various key typologies of stakeholder participation that have developed from various perspectives. It then describes the process of stakeholder participation and provides key frameworks that have proven to be useful to guide the stakeholder participation process.
Sara S (Saartjie) Grobbelaar and Marina Joubert, CREST, Stellenbosch University; Dr Vinod Lalljee and Prof Sunita Facknath, University of Mauritius; Associate Prof Yap Boum II, Mbarara University of Sciences and Technology, Uganda
In this DRUSSA publication within our Handbook Series, two cases studies are presented showing the process of identifying and engaging with stakeholders for two very different projects.
Telling the public about your research typically used to be much more of a one-way process. But, as the fields of science communication and research management have developed, communicators have realised that science communication isn’t necessarily just about telling; it should also be two-way and include listening, debating and interacting. Today, communicating your research to a general audience embraces a wide spectrum of activities, broadly known as public engagement.