Claiming the art of influencing policy change: whose knowledge is it anyway?
Last week we held training on the art of influencing policy change: tools and strategies for researchers. The objective of this training was to bring together researchers and other experts in the field of research and policy making to discuss on how to make better use of research evidence and derive much more impact, as opposed to simply ending up at publication. How can research evidence be used to influence policy?
The Deputy Secretary for National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation (NCSTI) Kenya graced the event and brought to our attention an important piece of information…. the STI bill 2012 was passed. The STI bill 2012 is for an act (STI act 2013) of parliament to facilitate the promotion, coordination and regulation of the progress of STI innovation in the country and entrench STI into the national production system. With it, brought the establishment of the commission which has succeeded The National council for Science and Technology. It’s bigger, better in terms of mandate and capabilities. It is now an autonomous body!
The commission too expects researchers to demonstrate more impact from their research outputs. This it will support by driving the national research agenda to impact and change the agricultural research system in Kenya.
This message couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The event was about using research evidence to influence policy change, and here we are getting information about a new STI act 2013 which seems to capture it all; a national research agenda, a national research fund which be allocated 2% of the GDP, an innovation agency to identify, nurture and support innovations, research committees and a science commission with ‘teeth to bite’.
However, I cannot help but think to myself, how much can this act achieve? We had discussions on various topics and issues surrounding use of research evidence to influence policy change. As usual, the issue of communication kept on coming up and it was emphasized the need to contextualize our communication- Different target audiences, different communication tools.
At this point, the issue of researchers holding on to information comes up. Researchers are more concerned about publishing- for good reasons maybe; promotions, recognition and all that comes with it. They cannot release it to the public domain until it is published, lest someone ‘steals’ it. I ask, isn’t the main goal for the research to release information out there for USE. Whatever use. Whose knowledge are researchers are holding onto? During the training, Prof. Ruth Oniang’o made a statement which I openly want to identify with “Nobody can claim monopoly to any knowledge. The only difference is who uses it, how, where and for what purpose.”
I have just read a blog about the limits of evidence in African Agriculture by Researchers at the STEPS Centre Livestock project. In this article (available here: http://www.future-agricultures.org/blog/entry/-the-limits-of-evidence-in-african-agriculture#.USPDOx0a68A ), the authors ask if African policy makers have access to good evidence. They argue that perhaps this could be true and thus a limitation in using research results to influence policy change. I am compelled to agree with them on this point. Why? Researchers are not yet ready to be ready to release research evidence as and when needed. It came out in the training that it is important to raise the policy issues at the right time- strike while the iron is hot! If the GMO debate and the bio safety issues are trending and carrying the agenda, release whatever evidence available regarding that topic then. It will be timely.
Are we (researchers) ready to face the reality? Do we agree that it is not after all our knowledge? Every time we seek to carry out a research on whatever issue, emphasis is always placed on problem statement. In this section, we always define the research problem with respect to how it affects certain processes, certain actors, or certain policies. We also describe the steps to take in addressing this problem and it more often than not includes synthesizing available information through literature reviews and analysis. What this means in essence is that the knowledge derived out the research is not ours per se with the argument it concerns other actors and processes in one way or another.
As such, while we are focusing on claiming the art of influencing policy change, let us not forget to remember that it is not just about using evidence, but also using evidence as it emerges to ensure relevance of the policies. That after all, it is not our knowledge, it belongs to the people, ALL PEOPLE.