Today’s development research mixes scientific endeavor with policy advocacy. Scholars are encouraged to contribute research-based solutions to development challenges, and are expected to distill recommendations from their analysis and evidence. They are also advised to communicate the implications of their findings in ways that can reach policy-makers and practitioners most effectively, and then demonstrate their impact on decisions and outcomes.
It is increasingly common for research grants to include requirements to present research ‘to a wider audience’, to write ‘policy briefs’ and ‘blog posts’ based on academic papers, and even to deliver the occasional TED talk. The ‘translational’ agenda – originally a research field in medicine concerned with turning new discoveries into innovative practices – has taken root across the social sciences, with a strong focus on presentation of research in plain language and on the role of knowledge intermediaries.
In some countries (notably the UK), the economic, cultural and social benefits of scholarship are starting to become part of the definition of research excellence. Research communication has become a profession in its own right, and often researchers are the ones expected to excel at it.
For researchers, however, career incentives for making sense of their work for non-academic audiences remain minimal. Specialization drives research – and it trains researchers to work with a shrinking number of people.
This is true about the way researchers are trained in their profession, and the way that they produce, publish or present research. Throughout a researcher’s career, formal incentives to work with people from different fields and sectors, including researchers from other disciplines, are the exception. The incentives to stay away from jargon and technical language are rare. Careers are built on ever more specialized academic production and networks.
As for policy-makers, they may pick experts’ recommendations to support their own objectives, but they hardly seem to see themselves as simple intermediaries translating academic wisdom into policy. Policy is much more complex, it is not just technical and disembodied. Politics is at the core of shaping and implementing decisions. As is also well understood, the time horizon of policy-makers is much shorter than that of academic research – increasing the perceived gap between the two worlds.
There are two polar approaches to addressing that gap. The first is to try to close it by bridging these two worlds: inviting researchers to work on ‘solutions’ and effective research communication, and asking policy-makers to be more academically inclined. Recommendations, however, are rarely taken up, even when they are technically flawless and politically savvy.
The second approach, which we support and explore through this new blog, is to recognize the fundamental differences between these two worlds and focus on what individuals and organizations on both sides have in common: an innate interest in knowledge. We treat research as a privileged (but not unique) way to create knowledge, rather than a shortcut to create solutions, and ask researchers to prove this point with regard to their own work.
Communication, of course, is still much needed to make sure that the knowledge created through the research process is accessible to, and accessed by, decision-makers and other stakeholders. That’s why the blog has a strong editorial team.
Through this blog, we aim to facilitate access to the knowledge and evidence created by researchers, particularly researchers from the global South, which is constantly expanding within the academic arena. To be of interest to a policy audience, research does not necessarily need to end with recommendations. To be of interest, research should develop sound arguments and identify information that can shape practitioners’ and decision-makers’ views of development challenges.
We believe that it is an engaging mission of development research to be called upon to weigh evidence and existing knowledge, through the researcher’s own perspective, to shape judgment and influence action, to illuminate policy challenges through a discussion of what we know, and what we don’t know about development, based on existing research.
We believe in the critical mind, in the never-ending quest for knowledge, in the incompleteness of scientific certainties, in the use of knowledge by policy-makers depending on their own instincts and in the risk-taking that is inherent in decision-making, and not a function of evidence. This blog is an exercise for such communication: one that makes research approaches, analyses and results accessible to well versed non-researchers.
GlobalDev is a new blog designed on such premises. It does not primarily aim to present research papers. Instead, it aims to inform the scope and boundaries of debate around major development challenges. Our inspiring question is not ‘what is a given piece of research saying?’, but ‘what do we know from existing research on an important challenge? Based on this knowledge, what are the expected costs and benefits of various actions?’
We believe that this is an important part of the effort in making sense of research, complementary to the role often expected of scholars, namely that of advising governments through recommendations based on their work.
GlobalDev invites researchers to write about development challenges starting from their research and that of others. We invite researchers to illuminate policy challenges in global development through a balanced discussion on existing scholarship, for the benefit of development donors, policy-makers and practitioners.
We mobilize researchers from a wide number of disciplines and provide a platform with hands-on editorial and translation support to craft effective, accessible contributions, and push them ‘out there’, in three languages. We welcome all researchers who care about the value of sound knowledge for development, and who wish to take part in bringing relevant facts, evidence and analysis to a conversation with decision-makers and other stakeholders.
On behalf of our Advisory Board and editorial team, we look forward to reading your submissions – and to you reading our content!
The Founding Editors
This article was originally published on Monday, October 8th, 2018, and was modified on Monday, January 28th, 2019.