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Does Research Make a Difference in Development? The 3rd RiDNet Annual Conference at the University of Leeds


Written by: Elizabeth Harrison and Eleanor Jew

The Researchers in Development Network (RiDNet) is a multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty network of PhD students working on development at the University of Leeds. Every year RiDNet organises and hosts an annual conference.

The 2014 conference was held on Wednesday 12th November, hosted by the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) at the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds. The theme was “Does Research Make a Difference in Development? Bridging the gaps between research, practice, and policy”. This question is prominent in most areas of research where RiDNet members work, and is increasingly being asked as researchers look to make an impact on the world. Furthermore, researchers, policy makers, and practitioners are increasingly acknowledging the need to work together to successfully solve the world’s development problems. However, bridging the gaps in thinking, approach, and access etc. between these three sectors has raised numerous problems.

Group workRiDNet’s 3rd Annual Conference invited PhD and early career researchers from universities across the UK, alongside a great line up of key note speakers, to participate in a day of debating this question. The schedule for the day was packed, and RiDNet was very excited to welcome researchers from the Universities of York, Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds, and King’s College London

After a welcome and introduction from Dr Susannah Sallu (lecturer in Environment and Development), Professor Jouni Paavola gave the first keynote speech addressing the theme from the ‘Research’ perspective. Professor Paavola used his experiences of researching in Uganda, Tanzania, and India to explain that research comes in different shapes and sizes and thus different things have different strengths and weaknesses; it is not about research ticking all the boxes but about focusing on one and doing it well. He especially emphasised case study work as a good means of providing insights for policy and practice.

Six competitively selected PhD presentations were then given across the themes of poverty, health, and governance.

The role of conceptual pluralism in understanding poverty, demonstrated through a case study in Nigeria.

Participatory mental health research in Sierra Leone demonstrates the need for two way transfer of knowledge. Funding for PhD’s influences the impact their research can have in practice.

The role of female community health volunteers in maternal health improvements in Nepal and barriers to local implementation of wider policies.

Improving the impact of development research through better communication and uptake in the decentralised system in Indonesia, requires fostering interaction, relationships, roles, and capacities between state, civil society, and the private sector.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing threatens sustainable development in the Gulf of Guinea. Six channels link research to policy: dissemination, capacity development, influence, collaboration, incentive, and an enabling environment.

  • Rebecca Howard, Sustainability Research Institute, University of Leeds

Working at the nexus between academia, policy, and practice; asking where are the spaces for change, and identifying the opportunities and potential synergies within this nexus. Is there a trade off between independence as a researcher and having impact which often involves engagement in the process?

Just before lunch Sarah Mistry from BOND and Lizz Harrison from Y Care International gave an exciting and interactive key note presentation from the 'nexus' perspective asking what the motivations and drivers are for evidence-based research, and highlighted how little we follow research guidelines in our day-to-day lives (have you had eight hours sleep and breakfast today?). They outlined their principles for high quality research, including voice and inclusion, appropriateness, triangulation, contribution, and transparency, and highlighted that researchers need to be careful about the language they use in communicating their research, stepping away from academic and jargon-laden language to accessible, easy-to-read prose that distils the key points.

After lunch Lindsey Jones from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) kicked off with another frank and honest talk from the 'policy' perspective, with the benefits of personal research experience. Lindsey started off his presentation stating that only rarely does research actually get incorporated into policy. He recommended using infographics and visual representations of research findings which makes them more appealing to, and easily digestible by, policy makers and practitioners. Lindsey expressed his opinion that workshops are not efficient and rather engaging with 'Champions of Change' – those who are keen to listen and will champion your research findings – is imperative to catalysing action. Along these lines, Lindsey advocated for more boundary organisations to be present at the science-policy interface.

Last but not least, Jessica Greenhalf from Restless Development presented her experiences from the 'practice' perspective. Having just returned from living and working in Uganda with Restless Development Jessica had a lot to share. The key point Jessica made is that Restless Development, as a practitioner youth-led development organisation, follows the holy grail of allowing its work to be dictated by the research that it does itself, or its Jessica Greenhalf from Restless Developmentpartner organisations (such as IDS) do, rather than being stuck in a log-frame. The next step for Restless Development is to learn to integrate this youth-led research to inform their practice and advocacy across the organisation.

The presenters gave the conference participants a lot of rich and honest information. After the all the presentations a workshop session was organised to try and encourage some formulation of these thoughts, to provoke discussion and to start to look forward to what the participants, as researchers, can do to bridge the gaps highlighted through the first part of the day. Participants were split into two groups – one representing policy, one representing practice – and were asked to step into the shoes of those perspectives and synthesise the challenges raised throughout the day. They were then asked to take these challenges, and from either the policy or practice perspective, consider solutions that may lead to a bridging of the gaps between research, policy, and practice. This led to an incredibly in-depth discussion amongst the two groups, who came back together to share their thoughts and were quite disappointed that they had to stop to make way for the final part of the conference: Question Time.

Four of the keynote speakers had been able to stay for the duration of the day and sit on our Question Time panel. Questions had been collected throughout the day to be posed to the panel members. Conference organisers Elizabeth Harrison and Eleanor Jew (both PhD students from SRI and members of RiDNet) shared playing the role of David Dimbleby; encouraging answers from the panel and fielding comments and questions from the audience. The questions asked ranged from querying the amount of detail lost in summarising key points for policy makers, to whose responsibility is it to do this, to what impact is expected from PhDs and how this can be achieved.

This intense and intriguing discussion was brought to a close by the arrival of drinks and snacks for participants to enjoy whilst continuing to chew over the day. A little birdy proclaimed these lasted until the wee hours!

The overall conclusions from the day, reiterated during Question Time, were succinctly summed up by a tweet from participant Kate Pruce from the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester: “To sum up: partnerships + collaboration, face-to-face contact, expectations management, are all key to improving research to policy and practice”. There will be a number of outputs from this conference including Research Notes on the presentations made as well as a more in-depth look at the discussions that occurred during the day, linking this to the wider debate about the impact of research in policy and practice. Follow @RiDNet_Leeds for updates.

The 3rd Annual RiDNet Conference would not have been possible without funding from the LEAP Researcher Training Hub and the White Rose Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (WRSSDTC), and the support of the Sustainability Research Institute (SRI) and School of Earth and Environment (SEE) at the University of Leeds. There are also a few key people to whom the organisers would like to extend specific thanks: Jami Dixon, Kate Massarella, Simon Chin-Yee, Alex Dorgan, Susannah Sallu, Samuel Wright, Nicholas Loubere, Lena Krunkenberg and, Twitter Queen Kate Pruce!