Nasreen Jessani: The (conflicted) role of researchers as advocates

Nasreen Jessani“You must lobby the parliament for your research to be considered! Rigorous evidence needs to be coupled with intense lobbying in order for political parties, who are steered by interest groups, to be willing to listen.”

This was the advice of a Kenyan parliamentarian at the opening session of the ResUpMeetUp symposium in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2015 (ResUpMeetUp is a community of research uptake and communication professionals). Not surprisingly, the advice resulted in several nodding heads, numerous discontented murmurs, and a handful of quizzical expressions among the participants. This range of reactions reflects the perpetual dilemma researchers face about how their role in society is interpreted: as responsible citizens, as neutral knowledge brokers, or as biased advocates.

There are varied perspectives within the research community about researchers engaging in research uptake activities by employing strategies, channels, and tools to enhance the utilization of their research in decision making (whether for policy, practice, or the public). Some believe that they are best placed to explain the results and the accompanying implications of their research, and hence feel compelled to be researcher-advocates. Others, in order to avoid accusations of harboring political agendas and/or compromising scientific integrity, seek partnerships with designated advocates. And now, increasingly, it would seem that the inclusion of a research uptake manager on research teams might be another approach. However, there are also those who believe that the responsibilities of researchers terminate with the generation—not active dissemination—of new knowledge (with peer reviewed publications serving as a validation of rigor, relevance, and utilization).

It is therefore commendable that a symposium such as ResUpMeetUp, among others, allows these debates and discussions to occur (see my initial reactions to the ResUpMeetUp). The symposium highlighted the importance of contextualized innovations in research uptake strategies, the ethics of research uptake activities, the role of funders in encouraging research uptake, the challenges of measuring the impact of research uptake activities, and the dilemmas faced by researchers—as already mentioned. Furthermore, it provided dedicated time for capacity strengthening through a number of workshop offerings.

The capacity strengthening aspect of the ResUpMeetUp symposium addressed one of the critical questions: If research uptake is so important, how do we ensure that researchers and researcher-advocates have the capacity to effectively engage in it?

There are some resources that exist, including the International Development Research Centre’s Knowledge Translation Toolkit and the Canadian Institute for Health Information’s book I say to-may-toe, you say to-mah-toe—both freely available online. There are also digital storytelling and data visualization techniques.

However, we need more systematic capacity strengthening at an institutional level in order to extend beyond individual competencies. This needs to be accompanied by academic processes that support, encourage, recognize, and reward such activities. But even if capacity strengthening for research uptake becomes engrained in mainstream research training, and even if institutions instill processes for recognition and reward for research uptake activities, the question of whether one traverses the role of researcher to advocate still remains.

The difficulty in this decision perhaps lies in the constant allusion to a “distinct communities” paradigm: researchers versus research users, us versus them, as if there was an incompatible culture gap. Experience demonstrates that this is not always the prevailing norm. There exist policy minded researchers who serve as experts on technical working groups, advisory bodies, or community governance boards. Similarly, many research minded decision makers have backgrounds in academia, bear honorary positions at research organizations, and actively seek evidence as inputs to decision making.

If we want to “bridge the gap,” and foster mutual understanding and greater engagement, we must refrain from assuming homogeneity among researchers as well as among research users. Furthermore, we must refrain from compartmentalizing these “two communities” as irreconcilably dissimilar.

Engagement is often driven by relationships. Understanding the politics of policy making and the relative power of key actors is critical to strategies for engagement. The importance of understanding networks, drivers of relationships, and methods for leveraging connections was never more evident than at this meeting—and emerged through presentations on knowledge brokers, media, think tanks, academic policy maker networks, and training in social network analysis.

However, there were too few research users among the participants. I was left asking: where was the audience for the ultimate impact of research uptake efforts? Engaging policy makers, practitioners, programmers, and the public in such debates and deliberations is critical to informing how research is demanded, appreciated, interrogated, and used. Perhaps the way conferences are marketed needs to take into consideration other stakeholders; otherwise, we risk insulating our thinking and preaching to the converted.

Clearly, how researchers alleviate the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the researcher/advocate dilemma is embedded in their personal motivations, morals, values, and judgment. Furthermore, the choice of action is likely to depend on the type of research and the relevance of the results.

However, researchers—particularly those working on operations or implementation research—should constantly reflect on the purpose of their research. If indeed the motivation behind the study appears to be “to influence positive social change and improve the lives of the people and the systems we study,” then the next logical question should be “can I be satisfied if that change doesn’t occur?” Hopefully, the answer will lead to a renewed sense of purpose and subsequent action to ensure that the implications of the research—if important—are heard, felt, and used to galvanize momentum for change.

Nasreen Jessani works as an independent consultant in health policy and systems research, particularly on strategies for evidence informed decision making. She recently completed her DrPH at Johns Hopkins University and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She tweets @NasreenJessani.

I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None.