Overcoming barriers to how research is used in practice is important — but it's just half the battle, says NGO research expert Rachel Hayman.
In the past few years, a very healthy debate has emerged over the interaction between practitioners and researchers in international development — fuelled to a great extent by the pressure to demonstrate impact.
This pressure manifests itself in different ways for academics and practitioners, but amounts to one clear thing — practitioners could well make better use of research, and researchers could engage better with practitioners.
A great deal of international development research could be better attuned to people's needs in developing countries — something that practitioners could help with. And the quality and credibility of NGO interventions could be enhanced by better interrogation and understanding of what works and what does not, why and how — something that researchers can help with.
The challenge lies in making this happen.
First, it requires questioning assumptions and teasing apart why practitioners and researchers do not interact enough.
Second, it requires creating better spaces — virtual and physical — for practitioners and researchers to share their knowledge, challenge each other, create new and innovative collaborative research relationships and put pressure on research funders.
From end-user to partner
To take the first point: over the past year, I have been working with several like-minded people in academic institutions, development NGOs and civil society support organisations to 'unpack' some of these issues. 
Although research funders still place a lot of emphasis on getting academics to improve how they communicate their research to potential users, the debate has slowly shifted: from communicating the research results at the end of a project to engaging with potential users throughout the research process.
Very recently, I have seen the beginnings of more serious reflection amongst research funders on how to build practitioners' capacity to engage with research. The UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) and Department for International Development (DFID) recently conducted learning seminars on this, for example, and it will be interesting to follow the development of research capacity building programmes that DFID recently put out to tender. [2, 3]
These are good trends — but researchers and funders need to beware of making assumptions about why practitioners do not use research.
Not just weak capacity
Weak communication and weak capacity (skills, human resources and financial resources) are important, but they are only part of the story.
Many practitioners need to be convinced that academic research is useful, useable and applicable in different contexts. Doing this will mean overcoming obstacles such as the different objectives, timeframes and institutional structures of science and NGO practice.
Practitioners also need to better understand what to do if they want to make better use of research. Having access to academic materials and databases, which Open Access campaigns are beginning to address, is one important issue; time will tell how much of a difference this makes to practitioners. But better understanding is also about knowing how to navigate and interpretacademic research.
Just as importantly, the politics of research and evidence use cannot be overlooked. Policy and programming options adopted by practitioners do not always reflect the evidence as conceived and framed by researchers. Strategic issues may take precedence.
Another point emerging from recent reflections is the need to flip the question of research use by practitioners on its head. We need to think beyond just research-to-action (i.e. how research is used). Instead, we need to consider action-to-research — how practice could shape research.
Many NGOs carry out research, and some (though by no means all) share it through academic channels. However, this research is often not well respected by donors or academics.
How a professional community conceptualises research, and the different meanings attributed to evidence, may be a significant barrier to research relationships.
Researchers need to engage more with practitioner-generated knowledge, to tease out the questions that need to be answered, and the data gaps, and to address how research can be embedded into practice.
Using 'action research' is one way to do this. It encompasses a group of participatory, solution-focused and value-driven methodologies that let researchers and participants identify problems and their causes, and adopt practical solutions. The approach seems to be gaining ground in collaborative international development research projects.
So how to achieve better collaboration?
Activities trying to get this going in the UK, and my conversations with others who have been trying similar things elsewhere in the world — such as ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance) on the humanitarian side, the Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) in South Asia and the Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) in South Africa — suggest it is not easy.
Practitioners need to do more to shape research agendas, to get their questions and evidence needs to researchers, and to get their own evidence into the public domain. Researchers need to engage more with knowledge and data held by NGOs, and respect practitioners' own research and research needs.
There are plenty of great collaborative research projects happening — I come across new ones all the time — but often these rely on strong existing relationships or affinities between individuals. Expanding these opportunities is the challenge, and bringing together people with very different mind-sets and needs is no easy task.
A starting point would be NGO and academic associations using virtual platforms, networks and face-to-face events to spend more time engaging with each other to build partnerships.
From there, they can collectively put pressure on research and development departments and funders to change how they support evidence generation and research use in international development.
Rachel Hayman is Head of Research at the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC), Oxford, UK and co-convenor of the Development Studies Association's study group on NGOs in development. She can be contacted at [email protected]