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A manifesto for research-policy funders: publish what you are funding and finding

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[Editor's note: I made a mistake about the funding of Ray Struyk's new book: it comes from Hewlett, not Gates. And I should add, just in case, that this post is a bit tongue in cheek. Who signs manifestos, really? Also, make sure you read Ruth Levine's excellent comment below.]

This week alone (and it is not even Wednesday), I have received calls from and heard about projects to study different aspects of the research and policy sector. Different but not too different. In fact, many overlap and they certainly overlap with research done by others in the not so distant past.

I have tried to keep an eye on these projects in this blog. For instance, I mentioned the work that TTI has funded on the context of think tanks as well as the relationship between think tanks and universities. I have also reported on the several papers that Australian DFAT’s KSI produced looking at the knowledge sector there and in other countries. There are several other studies funded by DFID via GDN (you won’t find any documents here yet GDN is funding even more studies) or ODI (the links are broken and I have not been able to find the new ones) that, well, you may have to look a bit hard to find nowadays. There are countless cases (even though I have argued that cases produce nothing new) from 3ie, ODI, and GDN and TTI. It has got to the point where cases are coming up will lessons like: It is important to communicate research or, my favourite, context matters. (Gasp)

Sometimes it gets a bit silly: TTI is funding a review of capacity development efforts and its own grantees are funding one of their own!

Last year, the Ford Foundation in Latin America produced a massive regional study on its historical support to research (among other issues). This could have informed the review of experiences that the TTI hired ODI and ECDPM to do; but it didn’t. I was asked to produce some pieces by KSI on supporting think tanks, too; and DFAT has published the evaluations of the KSI pilot.

Other examples of overlap include: Hewlett is funding a new book by Ray Struyk which will probably include business models and TTF is funding research into business models, too.

And that is only what is coming out of the ‘development sector’. But in the UK, in the US, Australia, and in other countries there is a lot more on knowledge regimes (or Political Knowledge Regimes which is what Adolfo Garce has argued for). There is a lot more in China. So much more.

Then there is the work done by Politics and Ideas, including topic guides, original papers, case studies, opinions, etc. And books I published on think tanks and political parties and think tanks and the media and the civil service.

The truth is that funders and their think tanks are not getting value for money. I am not suggesting that they should not fund two or three studies looking into the same issue. It is better to have more opinions on a subject.

Nor am I saying that there is no need to study this. There is. But I feel that they are not taking advantage of the huge opportunities for collaboration and co-production of knowledge, as Vanesa Weyrauch has argued so many times.

Here is what I suggest, lets call it a manifesto for funders to sign:


 

I [insert name of funder] will:

  • Share my research questions or intentions to fund a research project with other donors and publicly via my website and social media accounts with the objective of finding out if anyone has done it already or is planning to. Easy solutions: 1) email the Think Tank Funders Forum (for those who are members) and 2) tag your plans and projects with #researchonthinktanks (someone will let you know).
  • Coordinate any work with others; not necessarily to avoid overlap but to ensure that our efforts are magnified. Easy solution: send an email or pick up the phone.
  • Seek to involve the very think tanks I am trying to support through my research -rather than employ consultants- because think tanks learn better through the research they conduct. I will do all I can to help them develop a wining proposal. Easy solutions: 1) email your grantees first, 2) send On Think Tanks (and others) your call to republish, 3) publish on your website and social media.
  • Always aim to publish all intermediate and final outputs of this research widely through my websites and social media accounts as well as through the channels of the think tanks that carried out the research. Easy solution: make it part of the contract -to publish everything all the time. 
  • Never limit the capacity to publish of the think tanks I am supporting in favour of ‘northern’/’western’ academic institutions, think tanks or consultants. If they are better resourced then they can pay for their own publishing. Easy solution: include a clause that grants the copy-right to the think tanks doing the research and not to the project managers. 
  • Make it my responsibility to tell others everything I have learned in the process so that they may avoid making the same mistakes again -and again. Easy solution: just do it. don’t go for grand websites; publish online, email it, Tweet it, Facebook it, etc. 

In the mean time, if you know of a project or research being done on the subject of the relationship of research and policy -or that is relevant to think tanks, please let me know. I’ll do my best to share it and make it visible and accessible for all those who ‘need to know’.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Enrique, Thanks for a good and provocative post. I share some of your frustrations about both the redundancy and the limited utility of some of the work on research process and policy uptake. But I’d like to correct one inaccuracy and add an observation. The correction: Ray Struyk’s new book, an updated and expanded version of Managing Thinks Tanks, is funded by the Hewlett Foundation and not by the Gates Foundation. It is not intended to be a research product per se, but rather a practical handbook, providing guidance and examples of successful practice (and some lessons from painful experiences). Ray is drawing upon aggregate information from both GDN and TTI, so at least some of the links you’re hoping to see are being made. You are right, however, that there are cases developed as examples, and these may duplicate other work; I’m not sure.

    The observation: I see the proliferation of studies on research process and policy uptake in a slightly different light. First, I think it’s a sign of increasing funder interest in effectively supporting national/local think tanks and other research-focused organizations as a part of the “knowledge infrastructure” in low- and middle-income countries. I think this is a healthy evolution, given the general dominance of “global” or US/European policy research on development. I suspect some of this work is part of building a case for more funding to in-country think tanks, and for that it’s helpful to have multiple angles and voices.

    Second, and related to the first, I think these questions are being pursued because it’s so challenging for funders outside of a specific context to understand why some policy research (and researchers) get traction and other research does not. Funders have tremendous amounts of direct and tacit knowledge about the history, niche and influence of institutions they can observe day-to-day. For example, US funders have a strong sense of the strengths and weaknesses of Brookings, the Center for Global Development, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Wilson Center, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute and so forth. We know the people, their backgrounds, their products, and the impact of their work, and we can observe changes in real time. Not so when we’re seeking to support institutions elsewhere. So we, and others, seek some sort of framework that tells us how what we can observe from afar is related (at least as a proxy) to effectiveness and impact. In our own context, we are able to think about institutions in all their individual complexity; working in other contexts, we seek some generalizable principles and thus have an appetite for this type of meta-research.

    Enrique, keep up the great work! You’re providing a valuable service to a growing community.

    – Ruth

    July 3, 2014
    • Thank you for your comments Ruth. Sorry about the mistake. I’ve corrected it. You nail it when you say that the challenge is that funders tend to be outside the contexts that they are working in -and hence find it quite challenging. This is why my advice has always been to fund the think tanks they support to do this kind of study themselves because they know the contexts or to focus more efforts towards mobilising domestic funders to play the same role that US foundations are playing in the US. The Premio PODER in Peru is an effort to do exactly that and it relies on the knowledge of very well informed people to judge the value of the think tanks. You are absolutely correct.

      Another reasons for using the think tanks you support to do some of this research is that the outcome of this arrangement -rather than using consultants and consultancies as often- can go much further. Some of the best ideas on think tanks in the recent years has come from CGD’s reflecting on itself and its context. It has informed its own work as well as others. ODI produced quite a lot in the 00s and it benefited the most from it.

      Funders are doing this already -but not enough. I bet that the think tanks and universities project funded by TTI will have a much greater impact in Latin America or South Asia than in Africa because in the latter it is not being undertaken by a think tank. The new GDN call for case studies is probably going to use think tanks (and other research organisations) but is unlikely to be able to provide insights into the knowledge sectors of countries it does not cover -that we do not already know.

      (On this last point. Your comments got me thinking. I’ve seen think tank researchers dismiss findings or lessons coming out of other countries that, at least in my view, perfectly applied to their think tanks. “Things here do not work like that” is a very common thing to hear. Country cases tend to help those countries most of all. Bringing them together may give us some common lessons that can inform global or regional interventions and can certainly inform think tanks in the countries covered by the cases. But I wonder how strong of an argument they are for other context and other think tanks. Is this the information we need?

      Maybe funders could focus their attention on a few countries and study them in great depth. The US and the UK enjoy a significant literature on the subject that makes is sufficiently strong to be influential there and elsewhere.)

      A greater and more strategic effort needs to be made to turn this into a ‘popular researchable subject’, as Norma Correa, from Peru, would say.

      Again, thanks for your comments (and clarification). I hope it was taken as a bit tongue in cheek.. as it was intended.

      July 3, 2014
  2. one reason why we thought Transparify is a good idea is to bring more clarity into the field of what is being done. Disclosing funding for projects is only one piece of the puzzle, but without it, the likelihood is that you will keep replicating over and over again.

    In the meantime, another part of the manifesto should be that donors to all of these new pieces of research should require their funding recipients have a specific webpage on which they disclose their funding, including project funding, or on which they explain why this information cannot be disclosed.

    Such a nudge toward transparency is a clear and powerful measure about whether a donor is serious about wanting to improve practice, or whether their prime purpose is to go around in the ever-same circles. It will be interesting to see how donors line up, in that regard.

    July 6, 2014

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