3A. Engaging research, action research and why uptake matters
Research uptake processes fall across a whole range of professional spheres, including academics, research managers and university leaders on the supply side, and policymakers, business leaders and community actors on the demand side (not to mention other academics, applying your research findings through traditional modes of scholarship).
Herein lies one of the challenges in developing and governing overarching research uptake systems – they require engagement from so many moving parts, each with well-established ways of working, pre-existing responsibilities, specific areas of interest and limited time and resources.
This is where successful research uptake can depend upon good relationships between partners, researchers and stakeholders.
In Section 3, we look at the different skills and roles that researchers can adopt and set in motion to help craft and communicate research in consideration of end users. Having set out the benefits and the broader purpose of research uptake for both demand- and supply-side actors, one early role for the academic is to establish for themselves what the discrete benefits are and what the purpose of driving uptake will be for them. In their excellent public engagement guide The Engaging Researcher, Vitae, the UK professional development body for researchers, have noted that answers to the “why” question can range from expanding public awareness of your research and its contribution to social challenges to involving public actors in the formulation of your research question, consulting external actors on your area of research and encouraging people to help you to conduct your research.
“Researchers have many demands on their time, and career progression typically emphasises publication in academic journals or other scholarly publications. Preparing research evidence for lay audiences may not be a priority, or may not be an activity for which many researchers find time. Increasingly, however, research funding agencies require evidence that this has been done. Establishing research uptake management as a core function of the university may therefore offer a solution, providing an organisation-level capacity to help get the work of individual researchers and research teams to potential beneficiaries.” DRUSSA Team
One approach to “uptakeable” research is in the design of problem-orientated research, or “action research.” This type of research is focussed on identifying and existing social, political, economic, institutional, environmental or other recognised challenge that is being experienced by actors outside the academy, and which might be solved by the application of new, relevant knowledge. One dimension of action research is that, by virtue of its focus on application towards a societal problem, the research plan will not necessarily be constructed to align with traditional academic structures. As such, action research is often interdisciplinary in nature, in recognition of the complexity of the societal problem in question, the wide range of actors who can influence change and the different types of knowledge bases these actors may need to draw from.
“[I]mpact may not only occur through a linear transfer of results to applications, but also through processes of collaboration between researchers and stakeholders that can be traced to the early research definition phases. […] They are not only a mechanism to convey better the results of research but a way to enhance the relevance as well as the definition and conduct of research through the involvement of diverse expertise in the research process.”
This speaks to a need to not only translate research findings in lay language or policy language to aid uptake from demand-side actors, but also a critical need to rethink how the research itself is to be conducted. By involving stakeholders outside the traditional academic structure across the length of the research process, researchers can both establish good working relationships with end users and also incorporate their expertise and understanding of the problem at hand to improve the research itself.
Things to think about
In Section 7 of Vitae’s The Engaging Researcher, the authors ask the hypothetical question: “how can you be sure that you will be good at public engagement?” Spend some time considering the skills you employ when you:
Explain your research to friends and family
Reflect on your research with peers
Write content for a newsletter
Explain the relevance of your research to your research funders
Things to do
In 2010, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement in the UK drafted what they call their Attributes_Framework – a tool for researchers to ascertain the skills they already possess that will be useful when engaging with external stakeholders across the research cycle.
Together with colleagues, use the Attributes Framework to list the attributes you already feel you possess, and areas of growth you would like to see (through training, further experience in the field or through peer mentoring) and with which stakeholders and groups you feel some attributes in particular can be most useful (whether in communicating research findings, planning, or agreeing terms of engagement).
Marilet Sienaert, Executive Director (Research), University of Cape Town
In this presentation to the DRUSSA 2014 Benchmarking Conference, session facilitator Marilet Sienaert explains core principles behind developing effective research uptake processes and mechanisms at the institutional level and sets out key indicators of change and approaches to realising change to bring research into wider use.
Sara Grobbelaar and Nelius Boshoff, Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Stellenbosch University
In this essay as part of the DRUSSA Handbook Series, Sara Grobbellar and Nelius Boshoff bring together selected insights concerning the development of ‘knowledge utilisation’ as a field of study . The essay starts with a historical account by Backer (1991) which portrays the development of the field of knowledge utilisation as a series of ‘waves’. According to Backer, the field has developed from a series of scientific enclaves. The introductory section puts into context the presence of different scientific traditions and provides a historical overview of the development of knowledge utilisation both as a field of study and a political priority.
In this engaging and compelling blog article, Jai Ranganathan makes the case clearly: “If you don’t convince the public that your science matters, your funding will quickly vanish and so will your field. Put another way, the era of outreach being optional for scientists is now over.”
This article outlines some of the reasons behind the challenges that many researchers find when communicating science with non-specialist audiences, and some simple approaches to “demystifying” your research and engaging your findings with more diverse audiences.