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New SweDev study offers recommendations on how to increase the use of research in policy-making

November 24, 2021

Practitioners and policymakers want to use research in their work, but find research difficult to find, understand and implement. Lack of time is seen as the main limiting factor.

Photo: Popular district around Jama Masjid Mosque, Old Dehli, India © Maremagnum / Getty

The new SweDev study Increasing the use of research in Swedish development policy and practice examines how practitioners and policymakers use research in their work. The study is based on a survey and focus groups interviews and offers a deeper understanding of factors that facilitate or hinder the use of research-based knowledge. The study also provides four recommendations to increase the use of research and cooperation.

The study finds that policymakers and practitioners perceive research-based knowledge as important for their work, but that it is too difficult to find relevant research that is implementable. Practitioners seek concrete solutions for concrete practical problems which is something that research cannot always offer.  Instead, research is perceived to be separated from the realities of policy and practice and therefore not used.  

The reasons for research not being used and implemented are often backtracked to being an issue of time and budget for practitioners. Research is published and communicated in forums not reached by practitioners.  Practitioners do not have access, or do not turn, to peer-reviewed sources such as scientific journals or research databases. They rather find knowledge through networks and colleagues. Research is also often just searched to back decisions that have already been made, or views already expressed in current policies, leading to that critical research is discounted or ignored.

”There is a lack of communication and cooperation between researchers and practitioners. We need to strengthen interaction between the two to ensure that knowledge coming from research informs policy-making,” says Janet Vähämäki, Programme Director of SweDev and one of the authors of the study. 

Swedish practitioners also tend to use research produced in other countries, rather than by Swedish organisations and universities. Practitioners do not wish to be perceived as promoting a Swedish agenda and therefore turn to global institutions. Many international research organisations have established high reputations for producing world-class research on certain development issues, and practitioners highly value collaboration with them. At the same time, however, practitioners in Sweden do not seem to know how or where to find research or researchers in Sweden. These prevailing preferences and networks risk weakening Sweden’s development research and its future resource base.

Based on these findings the authors of the study put forward four recommendations to expand the use of research-based knowledge in Swedish development policy:

1. Bridge the communications gap between researchers and practitioners

Communication and translation of research-based knowledge to policy and practice must improve. For greater uptake of research, it must be published in places that practitioners can quickly find. It must also be more accessibly written with a focus on key conclusions and recommendations. Researchers would benefit from writing different types of outputs about their findings, in outlets that are available to the policy community, in language that is free of jargon, and in short formats. At the same time, policymakers and practitioners would benefit from training on how to use search engines that are storehouses of peer-reviewed literature, and on how to quickly find and read the main takeaways of academic research. Seminars and dialogues as well as longer in-person meetings and training that bring researchers and practitioners together offer means to provide better communication between the two communities.

2. Co-create research and development initiatives

Today’s development problems are complex. They require co-creation of research and development initiatives – not unconnected, uninformed pursuits. Development practitioners who participated in the study clearly expressed the need to enable the development research community to apply its knowledge and expertise more directly to the implementation of programming and policymaking. In turn, findings of previous studies show that researchers also want to be more connected to development programming and policymaking. We believe that co-creation of research and development initiatives would be a win-win for practitioners, policymakers and researchers. Directly involving researchers in the design and implementation of development projects and programmes would allow them to provide more relevant, timely and useful input. 

3. Connect development researchers, policymakers and practitioners in Sweden

The links between development researchers and the policymaking community in Sweden could be made more resilient, for example by institutionalising support to networks and/or other platforms. Many researcher-practitioner-policy collaborations today depend on personal relationships that are vulnerable to changing personnel and governments. The connections that exist often emerge in an ad hoc manner – and most often, with internationally based researchers. Strong international connections are vital and must be cultivated; at the same time, there is also a need for the Swedish research and policy communities to engage and partner with one another. This is important for future development and innovation, and future initiatives and resource bases within Sweden. Greater capacity-building efforts are needed to support networks and platforms within Sweden to realize the country’s international development policy ambitions around the world. 

4. Change incentives and structures for funding to improve work towards the 2030 Agenda

The lack of organized research-policy-practice links seems to be an outcome of incentives and the financing picture for Swedish development research that has emerged over the past decade. No funding stream supports more organised platforms for building relationships between development practitioners and researchers within Sweden. The increasing focus on control of projects and procurement regulations may result in development practitioners choosing to collaborate with consultants who can react more quickly and often have greater familiarity with the development jargon but lack the depth of researchers. Practitioners see a need for more in-depth knowledge produced by researchers. At the same time, they do not have the time or the know-how how to tap this expertise. Therefore, we see an urgent need to establish incentives and structures for funding to support and facilitate partnerships between researchers and practitioners, and to support needed links between research and policymaking. 

Watch the launch seminar of the study