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

3 July 2014

[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 3ieODI, 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’.