Individual and institutional research agendas: how different are they?

9 August 2016
SERIES Doing policy relevant research

Why should one discuss individual and institutional research agendas when talking about policy relevance? From my experience working at and with think tanks, we have learned that this is usually a tacit issue that, though relevant, very rarely gets the reflection and discussion needed.

Intuitively, it is clear why this is important: researchers who are more engaged with the topic and are passionate about their research will more likely put in the extra effort on relevance. However, think tanks are encouraged to have an institutional agenda, too. In other words, they need a vision that transcends personal interests. So, why and how can an organisation balance these two – sometimes – opposing needs?

During a course on Policy Relevant Research, participants shared their personal stories and reflections. For example, someone realised how the success of her career at her organization had been in the process of negotiating the research agenda. She had infused the think tank’s own agenda with some of her ideas and priorities, and had also learned from the issues that were already in the institutional agenda. She is now comfortable with an agenda that has organically emerged from this negotiation.

Another participant shared the challenge his think tank was facing with hiring senior staff that would perfectly align to a pre-established institutional agenda. This suggests there are limits to over-planning a research agenda without taking into consideration the capacities and interests of current and potential staff. High rotation of junior staff in a think tank was also considered to be a result of a miss-alignment between institutional and personal research agendas and a lack of spaces to discuss and negotiate these issues.

These and other examples suggest that a successful think tank gives its staff the space and capacity to shape the research agenda, and not only take it as a given. Keep in mind, however, that balancing personal and institutional agendas is part of the principle of having a shared “realistic agenda”.

The balancing act

Here we summarise different instances where this balancing act must take place:

  • Hiring (senior) researchers. An occasion when agendas become critical is when hiring new researchers. With senior researchers, it is expected they should already have a developed personal agenda, be (somewhat) publicly known for research in this area, and that they can articulate it concisely. A senior researcher without an agenda might not have the self-motivation to carry forward a program independently and to grow from the initial requirements of the job. Sometimes, individual and institutional interests are pretty aligned and sometimes it is a matter of time to reach a virtuous match. In the process, it is important to openly discuss the extent of the differences and how much each party is willing to compromise.
  • Managing junior researchers. As a senior researcher it is important to be aware of your own priorities and those of others. Have you discussed the interests of other researchers, especially the younger or recently hired ones? A researcher who does not see the opportunity to develop a personal research agenda, or that might not be able to align interests might soon start looking for another job. Furthermore, researchers who can develop their own agenda beyond fulfilling research duties for existing projects may become important assets for the organisation. To accomplish this balance, senior researchers who can act as mentors are critical.
  • Managing yourself. As a senior researcher you might be in charge of a thematic group, or in the case of a Research Director, you might oversee many topics at once. But then, how do you have time to carry out your own research? Many senior researchers, especially those that overlook various topics at once face the challenge of not losing their agendas while supporting a wide range of topics -and the careers of others. Not having a personal agenda might be a reason for losing motivation while carrying out the oversight of a wider agenda might cause burn-out. Have you reflected on how you are balancing your own agenda with that of others in the organisation?

Therefore, researchers and leaders must take time to reflect on their personal agendas and that of their colleagues. This step can be critical to making sure that the institutional agenda can be implemented and have an impact. Remember, at the end of the day, proposals coming out of any research will need a researcher to push them through -and this is a long game.