Reflections on the accessibility of research knowledge for policymaking in Peru

19 June 2017

[This post was originally published on the Think Tank Initiative’s blog. This is the second of two posts on research accessibility for policy influence in Peru.]

A common problem in the research to policy nexus is that research often “stays on the shelves” and does not have an impact outside of academia. Policymaking needs to be nurtured from research, thus responding better to the reality of the context it influences.  As part of a study exploring how to understand research accessibility and how to increase the use of research in policymaking in Peru, we interviewed researchers and policymakers in Peru’s capital (Lima) and two regional cities (Piura and Arequipa). This post shares some of the findings from our study.

 In Peru, policy is increasingly being informed by research. In 2007, the government adopted a results-based budget reform that is shaping how public expenses are managed, with new considerations for integrating evidence generated through research.  However, while the use of evidence in policymaking has been increasing since that time, for example during the educational reform in 2014, there is still room for more to be done. Particular challenges remain around the general culture of using evidence in decision-making, and the availability and accessibility of research for policymakers.+

What are the barriers to research production?

An important aspect of research accessibility is that research is physically accessible, which requires it to exist in the first place. People we spoke with discussed how the spread of the internet and the ease of digital sharing has increased the physical accessibility of research and of information generally. However, we heard many stories of researchers not even being able to conduct their research in the first place due to barriers such as limited funding. In fact, a theme that permeated our discussions was an apparent disparity in access to resources, networks, and tools outside of Lima, which created challenges for regionally based researchers to both create and share their findings.

Peru is a centralized country, with the capital, Lima, being home to one third of the population (11 million people) and responsible for nearly 50% of the country’s GDP. This translates into clear differences in terms of access to opportunities depending on where one is located. Researchers based outside of the capital often discussed struggling more to access research funds, quality education, and social networks, when compared to researchers in Lima. This array of factors affects the ability for researchers to produce quality research studies.

How important are perceptions?

While the availability of quality research is important, it became apparent that the perceived quality of research is also important. The perception of quality seemed often shaped by the reputation of a particular individual or institution. Institutions that are often consulted by government were likely to have built their reputation over decades, by consistently delivering credible and high quality work. For example, the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP) and the Grupo de Analisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE) – two Peruvian institutions supported by the Think Tank Initiative – have both been operational for over 35 years and have each built their reputation over time. While this may put newer organizations at a disadvantage, there could be immense benefits for these institutions to collaborate with others that are already well established.

Another aspect of reputation is an institution’s perceived political or ideological slant – for instance, whether it is considered to be “left” or “right” leaning. When this perceived slant is seen to be contrary to the perspectives of policymakers, they may disregard research findings, regardless of their rigor or relevance. In one of our interviews, a participant based at a think tank in Lima discussed having to dispel the perceived slant of the institution:

I have spoken with journalists who told me that [our institution] is seen as being ‘center-left’, so the information that goes out has that bias […] and to a certain extent, this determines the degree of interest they have for [our work].

This institution had to make a concerted effort to reach policymakers across the political spectrum. The implication of someone’s worldviews on the accessibility (or usability) of information is important to consider, and is a key component of social accessibility

How are organizations making their research accessible?

The topic of research communication was often raised by both researchers and policymakers alike, particularly around the need to communicate results simply, in different formats (e.g. policy brief, video clips, blogs, etc.), and in ways that cater to different audiences. However, geographic disparities once again emerged as a key challenge. Whereas researchers at established Lima-based institutions often benefitted from communications support and, in fact, shared many examples with us of having informed policy debates, researchers in the other regions had limited, if any, such examples to share.

One researcher in Piura said that, despite having developed strong communication abilities over his 37 years of teaching, he still feels that he could communicate better with the help of additional support, recognizing, in fact, that “communication is a team effort”. This willingness to work with communications experts or to craft research results in different formats has not always been present in Peruvian institutions, however. We spoke with a communications consultant who previously worked with a research institution in Lima, who told us there was often a initial resistance to this type of communications support from researchers. However, their attitude shifted once they began to see the benefits, and that institution is today recognized for its innovative communication products. Investing more into research communications does, of course, entail additional costs. Financial limitations can therefore inhibit these efforts.

Informing policymaking takes social capital

In addition to communicating research results in an appropriate way, social capital emerged as a key aspect to making research accessible. We found that institutions who had successfully informed policymakers had often leveraged their social networks. Many had done so by creating spaces for dialogue with policymakers around key issues, focused around sharing findings and discussing potential solutions. In a particular example, an interviewee discussed being able to leverage international media coverage to gain the interest of policymakers, ultimately leading to the protection of a natural conservation area.

In the hopes of enabling more opportunities for socialization between researchers and policymakers, a civil society group known as the Alianza Peruana para el Uso de la Evidencia (the Alianza) emerged in 2014 in Peru. The Alianza is a collective of individuals interested in promoting debate on the methods, tools, and capacities necessary to generate a public culture that critically uses evidence in decision-making. In the fall of 2016, the Alianza organized the first Semana de la Evidencia (Evidence Week), which hosted over 30 events to promote better use of evidence, such as this panel on linking evidence with policymakers (in Spanish) hosted by GRADE. While Evidence Week is new, it aims to build stronger engagement between policymakers and researchers, and increase opportunities for research to influence policy. Collaborative spaces that bring together policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders around policy issues – such as Evidence Week – are certainly a starting point, but much more is needed. For instance, they could be more inclusive of smaller organizations and those located outside the capital.

Moving forward

Clearly, getting research off the shelves and into the hands of policymakers is no easy task. However, our research demonstrates that thinking about research accessibility may help researchers and institutions plan strategically about ways that they can better link their research and exchange knowledge with policymakers. . While there must be a willingness on the side of policymakers to use research knowledge, aiming to increase the accessibility of research from the outset is an important step for increasing its use down the road.