How can decision-makers ensure they use robust science? How can we get researchers to understand policy-makers and their constraints?
In January this year, SEI—through the Agriculture for Food Security (AgriFoSe2030) initiative—partnered with food security and agriculture experts from Asia and the Pacific to find answers to these questions.
The meeting in Bangkok produced the following guiding principles for researchers, policy-makers and practitioners interested in building more successful connections.
1. Context matters
Different countries and regions often have vastly different forms of interaction. In some places there is a lack of interaction between scientists and policy-makers, but in others it is plentiful to the point of being a burden.
In India, for example, participants highlighted how this interaction space was not only over-crowded but also very formal and hierarchical. Public institutions and agencies producing research on agriculture and food security have been established in India since the beginning of the green revolution, but national and regional governments are funding them and so can have a lot of control. A junior or mid-level scientist with the desire to influence policy would likely need to work for one of these agencies, but many people feel that this type of institutional dynamic results in loss of independence and objectiveness—elements critical to effective science.
Participants at the meeting also mentioned how research is often primarily academic and not well applied or action-oriented. This applies not only to India but also Vietnam and Laos, where the bridge between researchers and policy-makers is weak and the groups are often far apart in practice. However, there are exceptions: the Vietnam Academy for Forest Sciences, for example, works as an interface between farmers and the Ministry of Forestry. It liaises with all administrative levels in the ministry and forest managers working on the ground.
In another case, in Laos, researchers frequently meet with government officials and people working with policy activities. They are also often engaged in the writing processes of policies. But even in these examples, a holistic approach is missing for these often-complex problems. Government departments and ministries should extend meeting invitations to stakeholders from a broad range of sectors, not just researchers from specific fields.
2. Some challenges are universal
Although policy-making processes and on-the-ground settings differ in each country and region, there are a few challenges that are common in most contexts. At the meeting, participants from Vietnam recognised that researchers should interact directly with extension groups to ensure science will have more of a direct positive impact on farmers. This will likely hold true for any country or province with extension groups. Extension workers have direct links to policy-making bodies and meet farmers on a daily basis, and they often lack access to the scientific information they need. More direct engagement with these extension groups might be an important key to filling the knowledge gap.
Producing and having access to accurate data also remains a universal challenge, and is essential for reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2—zero hunger. A lack of incentives for collecting and sharing data; costs of data access (especially if proprietary data is in private hands or linked to intellectual property protection); and “fake news” and the use of information selectively for political purposes were a few of the data challenges discussed. Open source and data pooling platforms were also broadly discussed as possible answers to these problems.
Participants concluded that data needs to be treated as a public good and not a limited monetised commodity. Participatory approaches should be used when data is collected and shared to verify and improve the usefulness of data and to encourage knowledge co-generation between different stakeholders.
3. Cultivate and use networks
A hot topic at the meeting was the use of networks. Informal networks are as important as formal institutional setups in Asia and Pacific countries in the science-policy-practice relationship. “Developing networks, informal or formal, is a challenge requiring researchers to actively engage themselves in relevant science policy forums and on issues and challenges facing policy-makers and practitioners,” explained researcher and meeting organiser Ivar Virgin. Writing up robust and objective research and publish in peer-reviewed journals is one step for building reputation, but academics often need to make a name for themselves to be sought out for policy input. Having a broad and trusted network where effective communication is key will support researchers in this process.
“Building a network takes time, where researchers need to cultivate their non-academic contacts and continuously build on their reputation as a trusted, objective, reliable and valuable voice, not pushing a political agenda,” Virgin said.
4. Use matchmakers to help policy-makers “fall in love” with science
The role of the “matchmaker”, or knowledge broker, is vital to the science-policy-practice interface. The matchmaker actively links research to the relevant stakeholders and ensures information is repackaged in a way that is contextualised and aligned with their reality, opportunities and limitations.
During the meeting, agriculture and forestry research expert Sengphachanh Sonethavixay from Laos shared her extensive experience working closely with politicians. She sees herself as a matchmaker between researchers and policy-makers. Sonethavixay stressed that a researcher must cultivate and improve their networking skills in order to develop successful relationships with stakeholders, such as politicians and extension workers. “It is all about building trust to ensure your research gets adopted. To engage with policy-makers you have to send them information, invite them for seminars, presentations, share new findings, meet them formally and informally,” she concluded.
This is a time-consuming task, so the intermediary role of the matchmaker is becoming more important. If researchers don’t have time to develop essential relationship skills, they can call on people in the right space and time to assist in being their messenger.
The scientific community needs to partner up with policy-makers and practitioners and engage in the writing of policies and strategies if they want future policy development to be science-based. But from the other side, decision-makers and people working on the ground need to increase their interaction with researchers and seek their input, as well as better communicate their needs.
It is a non-stop process where learning and sharing knowledge around real-life issues is essential to reach effective and sustainable implementation of policy and practice.
The AgriFoSe2030 programme contributes to sustainable intensification of agriculture for increased food production on existing agricultural land; the aim is to do so by transforming practices toward more efficient use of human, financial and natural resources.