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Posts tagged ‘academic’

Think tank models of Zambia: Academic, Political, NGO, and Faith-based

Zambia offers a number of think tank models that should be encourage and supported. There are lessons to learn from all: academic, political, NGO and faith-based. These need to be studies and good practices must be promoted.

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Add salt to your communications strategy

Think tanks and research programmes are increasingly turning to the web as a channel of communication. They are setting up blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and signing up to as many social networks as they can in the hopes of reaching hundreds or thousands of readers. But how likely is it that their followers will be in the thousands rather than the hundreds?

For VoxEU, an initiative of CEPR, hundreds of thousands is more accurate. Some of its posts have been read well over 500,000 times.  But VoxEU is the exception to the rule. To begin with, it is an economics opinion site and economists are everywhere and always keen to read about economics; furthermore, even non-economists like to read about economics; it was launched right at the time of the financial crisis; and some of its contributors are columnists for mayor publications who help to keep up the site’s popularity.

But what chance does a biologist or a food safety expert have of consistently getting more than a few hundred web hits on their personal or organizational blogs? Not much.

The same goes for most social scientists. Research on migration, culture, livestock, sustainable development, local economic development, and other such issues can be, let’s face it, rather boring for the general public. And making it ‘sexier’ for mass consumption is probably not the best use of a researcher’s work or time.

Enter The Salt. The Salt is a food blog at the National Public Radio launched in september 2011 that, according to Host and Reporter Eliza Barclay, seeks to:

connect the dots between issues like food safety, the livestock industry, the meat labels in the grocery store, and the hamburger you actually eat.

Blogs like The Salt may offer an opportunity for scientists, veterinarians, economists, sociologists, and many other hard-nosed researchers to get their research out there and into the public eye.

The Salt is not a typical food blog. Its reporters generally do not write about trendy new restaurants or foods. Instead it reports on the political economy of what we eat. And because it is in effect a media outlet it tries to be interesting, accessible, and has the potential to reach millions.

The Salt’s approach works well for other concerns of the international development community -and of many think tanks: Pro-poor tourism, for example, could be a great topic to tackle. Not a travel blog but a blog about the political economy of travel that makes use of research on value chains, the roles of indigenous communities, the sustainability of use of resources, security, climate change, taxation, trade in services, etc. Rural development could consider blogs on global trends such as coffee or or cacao as ways to capture people’s attention. I went to London’s Coffee Festival last month and there were opportunities to discuss the science, politics, economics, and social dimension of coffee at every corner. But all brought tot life by the baristas demonstrations and the smells and tastes of coffee.

DFID and the Gates Foundation fund a great deal of research on health. But as hard as they try, single organisations or programmes will always struggle to get beyond their immediate professional networks (with the exception of maybe one or two articles in the press). But what if all this health research found an outlet in a sort of Health Vox or a Health Salt? Health is an increasingly compelling issue across the world and particularly for middle classes in the developing world: healthy living is a perfect hook into the realities of health and health services in many developing countries and a blog that tackles these is likely to capture the attention of a growing audience.

A word of warning, though: The Salt and VoxEU work because they are focused on the content and not on the cause. Their mission is to inform and not to promote any one position or view. Reporters at The Salt are free to seek out and develop their own stories, which are driven by a number of factors. According to Barclay:

We find stories on other blogs, other media outlets, news events, Twitter, and also our own intellectual musings. My bacon post (which I did for our health blog before The Salt existed) is a good example of that. University communications people pitch us ideas from new academic research or sometimes they repackage old stuff… we cover some of that, especially new health and science findings related to food, health, nutrition, agriculture, etc.

The relationship between academia and journalists is important for this to work. And this is further facilitated by the specialisation of the journalists. Eliza Barclay, for example, has an undergraduate degree in science and a master’s in  science journalism. She and her colleagues at The Salt are all part of the NPR’s Science Desk. As a consequence, The Salt blog is more science-based than other food blogs. This makes it distinct and allows it to dive in and cover a lot of issues that are probably missed by others.

When thinking of how to communicate their work think tanks and programmes ought to consider if media such as these already exist. If they don’t why not help develop them or even rebrand their blogs along those lines?

Impact of Social Sciences: Maximizing the impact of academic research

The London School of Economics has a great project and blog on the Impact of Social Sciences (Maximizing the impact of academic research, is the sub-title). What is it all about?

The Impact of Social Sciences aims to:

[D]emonstrate how academic research in the social sciences achieves public policy impacts, contributes to economic prosperity and informs public understanding of policy issues and economic and social changes.

In order to achieve this is will seek to:

[D]evelop precise methods for measuring and evaluating the impact of research in the public sphere. We have begun to develop quantitative metrics for measuring impact  and have performed comparative analyses based on a pilot study of 120 academics pulled from a variety of social science disciplines.

Who runs this?

The programme is co-ordinated by a central team in the London School of Economics Public Policy Group and involves the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London, the Sustainability Research Institute at Leeds University, LSE Health and the LSE Centre for Economic Performance.

They have already put together some very interesting products and services:

It provides a large menu of sound and evidence-based advice and guidance on how to ensure that your work achieves its maximum visibility and influence with both academic and external audiences.

  • And last but not least lots of interesting posts.

Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing | End Poverty.

This blog by Shanta Devarajan, WB Chief Economist for Africa, might not be directly relevant to the issue of think tanks but is of great relevance to the role of think tanks in different parts of the world.

Stefan Dercon’s wordle based on our data of the countries that economists work on ledChris Blattman and Tyler Cowen to wonder why there are more papers on Latin America relative to Africa in the Journal of Development Economics, a leading journal in the field of development economics. We looked at this issue in our paper onthe Geography of Academic Research.

Devarajan’s blog finishes with two important questions:

– What policies can “incentivize” knowledge production in low-income countries?
– Should we worry about this, or can policies to improve education in, say, Burkina Faso be based on research done in South Africa or the US?

I would argue that if this think tanks in countries where there is insufficient knowledge production should be trying to influence the adoption of the policies that will promote it.

And yes, I think we should worry that policy makers in Burkina Faso are basis their decisions on either peer reviewed research on other countries or non-peer reviewed research; namely reports from NGOs, donors and consultancies. Local economists are probably busy tracking donors’ funds instead of modelling monetary policy options.

So what other factors explain this?

on the business model and how this affects what think tanks do

Before defining the approaches they will employ to to being about research based policy influnce, think tanks need to ask themselves is: ‘what kind of organisation are we?’

According to recent work by ODI in Latin America –and drawing form the literature on think tanks- we could argue that think tanks can fulfil at least five roles (or services) in their political context:

  1. They can provide legitimacy to policies (whether it is ex-ante or ex-post).
  2. They can act as spaces for debate and deliberation –even as a sounding board for policymakers and opinion leaders. In some context they provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas.
  3. They can provide a financing channel for political parties and other policy interest groups.
  4. They attempt to influence the policy process.
  5. They are providers of cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties and governments.

How a think tank addresses these largely depends on how they work, their ideology vs. evidence credentials, and the context they operate in (including funding opportunities, the degree and type of competition they face, their staff, etc.).

We ought to define where we stand in the policy-research inter-face. However, the common debate over whether an organisaiton is a think tank or a policy research centre or anything else is, really, unhelpful. We would struggle to define any of them. It is better (as in the Network Functions Approach) to describe what the organisation should do. Then the shape of the organisation should follow to allow this to happen. The following framework (based on Stephen Yeo’s description of think tanks’ mode of work) might help.

First, think tanks may work in or based their funding on one or more ways, including:

  • Independent research: this would be work done with core or flexible funding that allows the researchers the liberty to choose their research questions and method. It may be long term and could focus on ‘big ideas’ with no direct policy relevance.  On the other hand, it could focus on a key policy problem that requires a thorough research and action investment.
  • Consultancy: this would be work done through commissions with specific clients and addressing one or two key questions. Consultancies often respond to an existing agenda.
  • Influencing/advocacy: this would be work done through communications, capacity development, networking, campaigns, lobbying, etc. It is likely to be based on research based evidence emerging from independent research or consultancies.

Second, think tanks may base their work or arguments on:

  • Ideology, values or interests
  • Applied, empirical or synthesis research
  • Theoretical or academic research

This is summarised in this matrix:

In the diagram above, independent theoretical research is the role of ‘Oxbridge’ type of research institutions. These are the ‘ivory tower’ research outfits (I do not think they are ivory towers, by the way) that focus on big ideas and little direct application or immediate relevance to policy. Some of these ivory towers, however, have Richard Dawkins (former Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Cambridge University) type of actors who use their research to advocate for a particular issue or position.

Ideologically driven advocacy is the business of some campaigning NGOs, interest groups and lobbies. These do not always base their arguments or objectives on the nuances of research but rather they might use it to support ideologically or value-based defined positions.

Think tanks (or the organisations which play the role of think tanks) are more likely to exist somewhere in between the two –with links and clear separations between them.

Naturally, in the search for legitimacy, ideologically driven groups will seek links with think tanks and academic research centres; and think tanks will seek links with academic research centres; but not the other way around.

Think tanks may be successful at controlling the ‘value chain’ by presenting themselves as desirable and useful partners for both the academics and advocates. To academics, think tanks can only offer a clear link to policy and policy relevance (not high quality research); and through it to influence.

If a think tank moves too close to ideologically driven work it is likely to lose its independence. This could lead, however, to positive results as it might give it access to a political party or government administration and secure and stable partisan/private funding, etc.  On the other hand, it might reduce its credibility and its policy space and funding opportunities.

If a think tank moves too close to theoretically driven work it might find itself competing in a market for which it may lack some key competencies and skills. Academic institutions are highly subsidised by their educational role and researchers have access o the necessary systems and resources for long term theoretical research that think tanks do not have. Furthermore, if think tanks are seen as competitors, academic researchers might be less inclined to collaborate with them.

One organisation cannot do it all.

With this in mind it is possible to explore  where and how the organisation might attempt to bring about change. A third dimension that may be added to the framework above describes the different spaces in which think tanks and other relevant actors might engage:

  • The political space: among politicians and agenda setters driven by ideology and party concerns as much as evidence, moved by the demand of voters and public opinion.
  • The practical or technocratic space: among policymakers, civil servants, analysis, experts, practitioners and policy entrepreneurs in the public sector, the media, in NGOs and in think tanks.
  • The academic space: among researchers in university research centres, epistemic communities, academic journals and conference editorial boards, etc.

Fourth, there are three sets of skills that are relevant for those in the research-policy space:

  • Research: academic in one extreme and analytical in another.
  • Communications: including research communication, networking and media.
  • Politics: including a thorough understanding of the political space, lobbying, etc.

To compete in one or another space, think tanks might have to trade-off some competencies or skills. For example, to succeed among academics, think tanks might have to trade-off their communication competencies (because of limited resources as well as pressures from more academic staff to focus on academic publications rather and policy engagement).  And communications competencies (broadly defined) are what think tanks may offer academic researchers as a contribution to a productive partnership.

But, of course, deciding this depends on where the think tank decides to position itself:

These decisions, however, should be easier if the boundaries of the organisation are more clearly defined.


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