The use of research in practice: experiences and lessons learned from the Nordics

August 19, 2021

The development sector in the Nordics is increasingly committed to strengthening the interaction between researchers and practitioners. However, obstacles still exist. The Nordic development research associations all describe a similar challenge: the development research community is fragmented and dispersed.

NorDev Photo: Unsplash

Often, researchers appear to lack the means to bridge their research to practice and find themselves in highly competitive and enclosed environments. From the practitioners’ perspective, research is deemed important, but many find it difficult to find and interpret relevant research into practice.

So far, there have been several attempts to increase use of research in development policy in all Nordic countries. Work to promote development research and training, strengthen the connection between researchers and facilitate knowledge-based policymaking has been going on for a while through associations in Denmark, Norway and Finland. In Sweden, a development research network has just been established. Both old and new associations in the Nordics make up a valuable source to assess previous work and look ahead towards future opportunities.

As part of the Nordic Development Research Conference 2021, SweDev assembled the Nordic development research associations to share previous experiences, best practices and lessons learned in bridging research to practice. This resulted in a roundtable with four Nordic representatives under the lead of SweDev Chair, Fredrik Söderbaum. Here are four takeaways from the discussion:

1. Creating opportunities for collaboration and networking

To foster the use of research in policy and practice, we need a space for collaboration and networking. The Nordic development research associations can play an important role here. Researcher networks has the potential to strengthen the interaction between researchers and practitioners as they can mediate efforts to let these groups make better use of each other, said Søren Jeppesen from the Association of Development Researchers in Denmark. Eva Nilsson from the Finnish Society for Development Research agreed, sharing that in her experience, researchers too often work in their own siloes separated from policy. At the same time, it is difficult for the individual researcher to be up to date and know what is relevant for policymaking. Nilsson suggests that researcher associations can serve as a link to practice by keeping an eagle eye on topical research relevant for practitioners.

2. Making valuable use of academic knowledge

Evaluations and studies in the development sector are increasingly being conducted by consultants. While procuring consultants could be helpful and time-efficient, Øyvind Eggen, representing the Norwegian Association for Development Research, said that replacing researchers with consultants comes with the risk of overlooking the complexity of development issues that academic knowledge provides. In contrast to consultants, researchers can also contribute to a general overview of a specific topic, area, or issue. Nevertheless, experiences from the Nordic countries indicate that policymakers increasingly do seek the expertise from researchers. In Sweden for example, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) commissioned consultants to provide evidence briefs on fourteen thematic areas. However, to follow up, Sida has asked to discuss these briefs with researchers to gain more in-depth knowledge offered by researchers.

Although an important step towards further collaboration, Eggen also noted that academic knowledge will not be used only because practitioners ask for it. Researchers have to leave their comfort zone, ask questions and show a willingness to learn how policymaking works.

3. Introducing new means of communication

Effective communication is vital to make use of research in practice and policymaking. While this may seem straightforward, researchers and practitioners have different ways of communicating. Eggen likened development research and practice in Norway to twins who have drifted apart to the extent that they are no longer able to communicate. As a result, it is difficult for researchers to contribute to practice. One challenge thus is to re-establish a language everyone understands. A first step may perhaps be to remove the middlemen. For instance, Janet Vähämäki, Programme Director at the Swedish Development Research Network, questioned the fact that communication departments are now doing much of the work of translating and summarising research to policy. Enabling direct contact between researchers and practitioners could instead foster interaction and avoid that the message is lost along the way.

Another way to address inefficient communication is to engage in new means of interaction. Researchers should talk more – and do less writing. A couple of years back, the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs invited researchers to an open discussion on inequality. The ministry took time to carefully listen and take notes while the experts held the discussion. Not only did this approach result in a useful paper filled with insights from academia. It was also time-efficient, as no one had to spend weeks reading long research reports. From a Finnish perspective, Nilsson also proposed strengthening face to face interaction, but also new means of communication, including podcasts and web journals. Still, not everything has to be novel. One participant in the audience suggested going back to traditional Finnish ways of meeting by bringing the dialogues to the sauna.

4. Aligning priorities, timing and relevance

Both timing and relevance are key to bridge research to policy and practice. From experience, academia and policymaking yet seem to operate in different ways. Jeppesen stressed that researchers get assessed on publications and teaching, both demanding a lot of time. In contrast, policymaking is rapid and practitioners have limited time to engage in ongoing research. Moreover, political priorities steer what is relevant, making it challenging for researchers to deliver useful evidence. Yet, good practices exist. In Finland, the development policy department within the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has previously announced on-demand calls for policy briefs on prioritised topics, thereby inviting researchers to engage in current policymaking processes.

Written by Alice Castensson, Consultant, SweDev