Linking research with action

Thanks to the recommendation by a colleague, I have just been reading a paper on Linking agricultural research knowledge with action for sustainable proverty alleviation: what works? written by a group of 19 people from Harvard University and the International Livestock Research Institute. The size of the group of authors in itself seems to indicate an alternative and inclusive perspective…

The paper asks ‘What kinds of approaches and institutions, under what sorts of conditions, are most effective for harnessing scientific knowledge in support of strategies for environmentally sustainable development and poverty alleviation?’ It applies an innovative conceptual framework to a diverse set of sustainable poverty-focused projects undertaken in a variety of African and Asian countries, identifying the following strategies as key to closing gaps between knowledge and action: the importance of combining different kinds of knowledge, learning and bridging approaches; the need for strong and diverse partnerships which level the playing field; and the need to building capacity to innovate and communicate.

Although the paper’s findings are specifically focused on sustainable poverty alleviation in projects, it seems to me that it has even broader implications for development across the board. In particular, its findings with relevance to ‘multiple knowledges’, boundary actors and co-created knowledge are particularly interesting. I found this all so very interesting, I’m afraid, that it has led to a horribly long blog post, summarizing this paper. Although I hope you will really like the paper too and agree that it is worth it!

Before the summary below, here are two quotes from the conclusions: explicit recognition of the need for new arenas, where partners come together to solve problems and create joint outputs, after having reached agreement as to new rules of engagement that encourage and support creativity and innovation, could greatly improve the probability of success of future projects. (p. 20)

…boundary spanning individuals and efforts are critical, and since individuals work within institutional frameworks, these need to be supportive of such work, thus we need to further explore and understand what kinds of institutional change are needed to encourage and facilitate boundary work. We also hypothesize that a lot of boundary spanning activities, behaviour and approaches can be learned. (p. 20)

The paper starts with an analysis of the the reason why the potential of science and technology (S&T) has rarely been realised in practice:

The gap between what knowledge could contribute and what it does contribute is especially acute in two areas of central importance to the challenge of environmentally sustainable development: when the benefits opf knowledge mobilisation have a significant public good component, especially a global one…  and when the source of the needed knowledge includes both local and global expertise. (p. 1)

Three main challenges are identified as to what strategies, institutions and approaches appear to increase the probability that S&T will contribute to sustainable development:

Challenge 1: Linking knowledge with action
There is a gap between research & development agendas and decision-maker needs.

…decision makers generally do not understand either the limits or the extent of what S&T has to offer and, therefore, cannot be counted on to order the right R&D; researchers do not understand the integrated, action focused needs of decision makers and, therefore, cannot be counted on to give useful advice even when decision makers are ready to listen. (p. 2)

Co-production of knowledge and the importance of boundary organisations are highlighted as a way of bridging this gap. The paper argues that co-production of knowledge by researchers and decision makers requires sustained and substantive interaction which changes what decision makers want and what researcher study. This co-production is likely to be more successful when  when facilitated by boundary or bridging organisations:

Such boundary organisations are most effective when they are subservient to neither the science nor policy communities, but rather jointly accountable to both and to the goal of successfully linking knowledge and action for sustainability. (p. 2)

Challenge 2: Integrating multiple epistemologies
A second challenge, confronting successful efforts to harness S&T for sustainability, is the integration of multiple epistemologies. This means finding ways of combining: knowledge from different scientific disciplines; knowledge centred on one scale of analysis with knowledge on other scales, for example local and global; and generalizable knowledge derived from the application of formal scientific method with locally contextualised, tacit knowledge, derived from practice:

Knowledge systems that arise from combining understanding from multiple sources, including tacit and research based, tend to be more effective. (p. 3)

Challenge 3: Facilitating adaptive learning
Paths of environmentally sustainable must be navigated – they can’t be predicted in advance – using S&T to shape interventions that are experimental, to observe and to adapt. Such adaptive learning strategies face serious challenges from typical organisational structures that reward conformity and punish error detection:

…institutions and procedures that facilitate adaptive learning capacities create safe spaces and incorporate external review. Efforts that provide institutional safe spaces encourage experimentation, protect experimenters from the consequences of failures, and reward people for learning fast rather than for being right. (p. 3)

Based on these challenges, a number of propositions were drawn up. These were then tested using the experience of  four diverse and complex projects of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The goal of this approach was to generate lessons that are broadly applicable to approaches for linking knowledge with action. These were then developed into 7 final propositions.


1. Successful research linking knowledge with action requires the use of processes and tools that enhance efficient dialogue and cooperation between those who have or produce knowledge and the decision makers who use it, and help ensure the research is user and problem-driven. (p. 11)

2. Successful efforts to develop research linking knowledge with action generally adopt a ‘project’ orientation and organization, with dynamic leaders accountable for achieving use-driven goals and targets. They avoid the pitfall of letting ‘study of the problem’ displace ‘creation of solutions’ as the research goal. (p. 12)

3. Successful research linking knowledge with action includes ‘boundary work or actions’ committed to building bridges between the research community on the one hand and the user community on the other and creating networks that allow interactions between the different users and producers. This boundary work often involves constructing informal new arenas, in which project managers can foster user-producer dialogues, joint product definition, and a systems approach free from distorting dominance by groups committed to the status quo. Defining joint ‘rules of engagement’ in the new arena that encourage mutual respect, co-creation and innovation that addresses complex problems, while recognizing that in order to implement changes, each partner is answerable, and has to return to, their institutional homes and the cultural norms, rules, constraints, etc. that go along with them, is key. (p. 14)

4. Successful programmes linking knowledge with action take a systems approach that recognizes scientific research is just one ‘piece of the puzzle’, and aims to identify and engage with key partners that can help turn co-created knowledge generated by the project/programme into action (new strategies, policies, interventions, technologies) leading to better and more sustainable livelihoods’. (p. 16)

5. Successful research efforts linking knowledge with action are designed as systems for learning rather than systems for knowing. Recognizing the difficulty of their task, such programs are frankly experimental, expecting and embracing failure in order to learn from it as quickly as possible. Success requires appropriate reward and incentive systems for risk-taking managers, funding mechanisms that enable such risk-taking, and periodic external evaluation. (p. 18)

6. Successful research linking knowledge with action must develop strategies that focus on strengthening linkages and effective patterns of interaction between organisations and individuals operating locally where impact is sought. A key role of boundary spanning work/organizations is the facilitation of processes that create strong networks and build innovation/response capacity of the system. Co-created communication strategies and boundary objects/products are key to the longevity and sustainability of project outcomes and impacts. (p.19)

7. Linking research with knowledge requires strategies to deal with the often large (and largely hidden) asymmetries of power felt by stakeholders. (p. 19)

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