‘Backwards research’ to move forwards with policy

This post originally appeared on the Walker Institute community blog: http://www.walker.ac.uk/news-events/backwards-research-to-move-forwards-with-policy/

Just before Christmas last year I was offered a place on the first Climate Services Academy Training (CSAT) programme. As someone who has been interested in the science-policy interface for a long time, particularly around climate issues, I was delighted with my early Christmas present from the Walker Institute (@WalkerInst on Twitter).

When the programme kicked off in mid-January, I knew I was in for a treat. The first two weeks were spent at the University of Reading where we were taken on a whirlwind tour of the topics we’d need to understand to work on ‘climate services’ (think ecosystem services, but for the climate). Topics included communication for development, international risk management law and governance, livelihoods analysis, politics and political economy, and knowledge exchange. This was followed up by a week of intense ‘scenario days’ where we were given a real-life climate or environment related issue that is currently ongoing in one of the programme’s partner countries (Senegal, Malawi, Ghana and Uganda) to read up on and report back on at the end of the day. I learnt an enormous amount in those two weeks, but we were just getting started.

The real value of the programme came from the two-week in-country placement, where we were working on one of the scenarios introduced to us during the training. Fellow trainee George Dakurah and I were given the opportunity to travel to Senegal, to look at the impacts of a drought that occurred in 2014 in the country. While I learnt a lot about the governance of drought impacts and disaster risk management, one of the main highlights of the experience for me was the incredible generosity of the people we met. Not only from our hosts at UCAD University in Dakar, where we had a great team of PhD students helping us to organise interviews and getting us the best deal on fresh fish at the beachside BBQ (namenalene!), but also from the large number of professionals who took time out of their day to talk to us. In total we conducted 22 interviews over 2 weeks with a broad range of experts including ministry officials, think tank researchers, charity workers and scientists. One of my favourite moments from our interviews was the response of a ministry official from the Department for Climate Change to our thanks for his time; he responded that it is an important part of their work to train and inspire the next generation of climate experts, otherwise who will move us forwards?

My only regret from the placement is not getting the chance to meet the farmers themselves and hear their thoughts, especially given our awareness of the importance of fair and equal knowledge exchange. However there were just so many individuals and organisations to talk to, that two weeks only gave us time to scratch the surface. I could quite happily have done a three year PhD project on our topic without running out of questions to ask and people to meet.

Photo 1: George Dakurah, Heather Plumpton, Cheikh Modou Noreyni Fall (CSAT students) and Mr Mody Diop at the Executive Secretariat of the National Council for Food Security (SE/CNSA). Photo 2: The Senegal CSAT student team in front of a map of African flags at the seaside in Dakar: Kader Toure Prodtedka, George Dakurah, Heather Plumpton, Cheikh Modou Noreyni Fall, and Ayeshatu. Photo 3: Interview in progress with Professor Boubacar Fall of UCAD University and the Climate Change Committee (COMNACC): George Dakurah, Ayeshatu, Cheikh Modou Noreyni Fall, Prof Boubacar Fall, Heather Plumpton. Photo 4: Cheikh Modou Noreyni Fall, George Dakurah, Heather Plumpton, Dr Ousmane Ndiaye of the Agence Nationale de l’Aviation Civile et de la Météorologie (ANACIM)

Upon reflection, I think the key word I associate with the CSAT programme is ‘inspiring’. Taking part in the CSAT programme has fundamentally changed the way I think about research. Across all elements of the programme, the overarching message for me was that if we want our research to make a difference in the real world, we need to turn the traditional research process upside down. What do we mean by that? Well, instead of designing a research program based on our perceptions of what is needed to tackle climate change issues, how about asking the people dealing with these issues on the ground what they need? If we can find out the questions they need answers to, in order to adapt to or mitigate the impacts of climate change, then we can design our research backwards from this starting point. We cannot take the needs of the people we hope will use our research for granted or assume we know best what they need. If we can answer their questions and meet their needs, then real change in policy and people’s lives can be achieved. We need to do ‘backwards research’ in order to move policy forwards.

For me, this really hit a nerve. The reason I got into research in the first place was because I wanted to make a difference, to contribute somehow to making the world a better place. I thought that researching climate change issues would achieve that. But I’ve learned that if you publish your results in a journal and hope for the best, more than likely it will just sail past the window, barely noticed (except for the addition to the publication list on our CVs) by anyone actually working on climate issues on the ground. If we want our research to be useful and to be used, which I believe many of us do, then we need to change the way we do research. Who’s with me? #backwardsresearch

Author: Heather Plumpton, Email: h.plumpton@pgr.reading.ac.uk, Twitter: @heatherplumpton

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