Why do we need to analyse our context to design a research agenda?

9 August 2016
SERIES Doing policy relevant research

In our previous article we introduced the seven principles for policy relevant research identified in existing literature and through practice. The first one referred to embedding the research agenda in policy context. Research agendas are not only based on think tanks’ interests or objectives. Think tanks do not work isolated of their context. Just as they seek to influence the context in which they work, they are influenced by it and by many other stakeholders that are part of it. Thus, it is important to understand the research choices we make given the context where we work in.

In their study about think tanks’ decisions, performance and context, Results for Development found that in general think tanks adapt their organisational and project level decisions to context on a fairly regular basis. So when we are designing a research agenda it is necessary to take into account the context in which our research will be conducted.

Context matters

Here is why:

  • Determine if your ideas are relevant: An analysis of the context will help you understand whether our research is relevant for a certain number of players, especially for those who may become the users of our work. Policy research is contextualised by nature, since the objective is to generate knowledge that is relevant for decision making in a certain region, country or community. This includes not only policymakers but other influential actors with related needs and interests.
  • Determine your capacity to influence: The definition of a research agenda is linked to a think tank’s capacity to influence public policies. For instance, when think tanks set their own research agendas without paying attention to the context they may become distanced from the political space. The opposite occurs when the agenda is only influenced by exogenous variables: think tanks lose autonomy but are more aligned with priorities in the policy arena.
  • Clarify your current capacities and potential: When a think tank understands its context, it must look at itself and see how prepared it is to tackle it. The ability to assess the demand for a think tank’s area of technical expertise is important for the think tank to develop a research agenda.
  • Become critical of your independence: Think tanks want to be independent voices. But what is independence? Usually, the standard argument for loss of autonomy has to do with the source of funding and the ‘funding model’ of a think tank. But independence is also important in relation to political affiliation or to favour the current government or opposition. Understanding your context may help define the most critical aspects of how to preserve the independence of your work.
  • Develop your understanding of trends: How many times do we ask ourselves: what are the main policy issues in the political agenda? How often do we analyse the trends in international policy research to understand what are the mainstream discussions in our field? Moreover, we need some funds to conduct our studies. Thus, international cooperation and donors’ priorities (and other less extended donors like the private sector and the State) also influence our decisions on what policy issues work on.

It is important that the process of analysing the context is undertaken constantly and not as a onetime event. In many countries, the context is in constant flux and an organisation disconnected from it might miss valuable opportunities.

What questions should we ask about the context?

Now we present questions based on different aspects of the context, organised from somewhat exogenous to endogenous, although it is wise for you to explore how malleable these factors are for your particular case.

By asking these questions a think tank’s thematic agenda passes through a “context filter” that can help researchers identify which topics are more relevant, which might need reconsideration, and if any should be dropped. This exercise can be carried out at an institutional or programmatic level, depending on the particular characteristics of each think tank. Furthermore, this exercise may require the involvement of other stakeholders through interviews or workshops.

Broad political scenario

  • How does the political system react to independent thinking?
  • What are the main changes occurring in the political or economic system?
  • Are there any relevant policy milestones in the short or middle term?

Intellectual climate and the role of other organisations

  • Do we understand the intellectual climate where we work? How do we fit in it?
  • Are there other players fostering the use of evidence?
  • How is science valued by other actors?
  • Is there a demand for evidence from citizens? What type of evidence?
  • What are the agenda of other research centers, universities and civil society?
  • How is our relationship with other intellectually relevant actors? Do we compete or complement each other?
  • Have we identified international trends in academia or policy? How are we related to them?
  • What are the priorities, strategies and objectives of donors?
  • Is there enough information about the topic I am choosing?
  • What are the interests, worries and capacities of public agencies regarding the use of research in policymaking?