For many think tanks, conducting research is a core activity. A well-thought out research project, if planned and designed well, often produces the expected results. So, what would the key elements that a robust research proposal should include be?
A clearly defined problem statement, one or two precise research questions, identified data sources, a rigorous methodology, and specific outputs. To make it special, a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and capacity building activities from a sustainability point of view can be added.
A research programme should be telling a story to hold the attention of the audience.
Ingredient 1: Problem statement
Provides a brief overview of an existing concern, a concise description of an issue to be addressed, or a situation that can be improved. Ideally, a problem statement should fill the gap between the existing problem and what is planned to be achieved through literature review, evidence analysis, desk research and observation. The main purpose of the problem statement is to emphasise the importance of the research topic or issue presented, position it within a specific context, and stipulate the pathway on how this problem will be addressed.
Ingredient 2: Research question
Typically, this should indicate the direction of inquiry that your research proposes to take in the context of the problem being researched. A research question helps to determine the type of research and also identifies the key objectives that will be addressed. The research question also becomes the beacon that guides the methodology and data sources. In short, your research question should underline what it is you want to evaluate, why you think this is important, and if it is measurable.
Broadly, there are 3 types of research questions:
Descriptive: used to help a study that describes something. It includes various public opinions which are mainly descriptive. For example: what percentage of the Indian population believes in being healthy/exercising?
- Variables: being healthy/exercising
- Group: Indian population
Comparative: includes and analyses the differences between groups. For example: what is the attitudinal difference between a rural boy and rural girl towards education?
- Dependent variable: Attitude towards education
- Group: Rural boys and rural girls
Casual: aims to establish cause and effect. For example: what is the relationship between age and attitudes towards fitness amongst teenagers.
- Dependent Variable: Attitudes towards keeping fit
- Independent Variable: Age and attitude
- Group: Teenagers
Ingredient 3: Data analytics
Typically, data forms the backbone of any research programme. Both quantitative and qualitative data are important. Quantitative data will help understand the incidence of particular phenomena and the rate at which it might occur. It also helps establish co-relationships. Qualitative data helps understand why this the phenomena is occurring. Data analysis is required to structure findings from research, is useful in breaking macro problems into micro units, clarifies useful insights from huge data sets and, most importantly, helps to eliminate subjectivity.
Ingredient 4: Ideation
Any research proposal in its initial phase should undergo an ideation session. Ideation is usually associated with design thinking, and forms an important transitional step: it clearly defines the purpose, problem and solutions. If adapted well, an ideation session will help understand and ask the right questions, go beyond a typical solution, emphasise on innovation, and collate great ideas from different team members. Ideation challenges assumptions and breaks conventional approaches to research design by allowing new ideas to be formulated.
Ingredient 5: Outputs and timeline
Best practice includes documenting every aspect of a research to include challenges, research findings, etc. The narrative should tell a story. A realistic time line is important for two key reasons: (i) if the research is too long-winded the data could become redundant; (ii) a realistic timeline with clear objectives, outcomes and schedule (hours and months) helps to keep track of major activities and, most importantly, allows the research to be relevant.
A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) typically includes policies, standards and procedures, and helps in systematising all processes and in documenting them. This is important for consistency. After all, each think tank must aspire to produce high quality research.