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Research uptake in the COVID-19 crisis

Girls' room in Ebenat primary school, Ethiopia. Photo: Nathalie Bertrams/GAGE

As the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Institute of Development Studies’ (IDS) Policy and Practice Seminar “research uptake and impact – how do funders see its future?” could not have been more timely.  The overarching question ‘how to get research and evidence to be used by governments?’ is one we especially grapple with in crises.

First and foremost, research is meant to improve lives – full stop.  This was the sharp definition established within the first minute of the seminar.  To do this, it needs to be timely.  In a world where academic research can be seen to “answer yesterday’s problems, tomorrow”, we need to act swiftly in crises without compromising rigour.  Admittedly, this balancing act requires thorough planning.

In light of COVID-19, think-tank research needs to ensure mechanisms are in place to be responsive to emerging needs. It needs to robustly differentiate outcomes for diverse sections of the population, quickly understand who the key local players are in mitigating the crisis, and draw upon the deluge of information we already have but tailor and package it for policy makers, who likely have limited bandwidth during emergencies.

Besides timeliness and utility, research uptake also requires forward thinking.  Take education as an example: in the current pandemic, with 91.3% of enrolled learners currently out of school, what evidence do we have that will guarantee schools are safe to re-open?  How do we address the staggering 368 million school-aged children and adolescents not receiving school meals during closure? What are the gendered impacts of school closures at household level, where women bestow the bulk of informal care?  How will we address the potential knock-on effect of adolescent girls dropping out of school as a result of the hiatus?

At the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) research programme, forthcoming primary research in the context of COVID-19 will seek to answer some of these pressing questions, particularly in relation to adolescent boys and girls.  We will be collecting virtually-gathered primary data on local barriers and enablers for adolescent’s adherence to safety measures, the most appropriate messaging for vulnerable groups, ways to enhance life under lockdown and the readiness of adolescents to access basic services such as remote education, health care and psychosocial support. We will also conduct research on economic poverty and the in(adequacy) of social protection mechanisms in crisis settings; adolescents’ vulnerability to age- and gender-based violence and adolescents’ psychosocial wellbeing in crises.

Evidence needs to provide concrete suggestions for action.  As generators of evidence, we must ensure there are practical solutions to complex problems and draw upon differential disciplines to do so.  COVID-19 mitigation will need to look beyond the purely epidemiological – medical front, and consider economic, psychological, environmental, and social disciplines to generate strategies that will positively impact populations. What are the most cost-effective modalities of gender-and-age responsive social protection programmes that can ensure basic incomes during lockdowns? Who are the first groups targeted?  How can we monitor and reduce adolescent girls’ exposure to the increased risks to their bodily integrity in crisis including higher rates of intimate-partner violence (IPV), taking on risky behavior to mitigate economic deprivation, and suffering parental violence? These are hard questions that need practical answers, which showcase the intersecting dimensions to vulnerability.

Finally, we need to acknowledge that an enabling environment is key for research uptake and even with the most robust uptake strategy, relationships matter.  The panel suggested commissioning and setting research agendas alongside key policy makers, and avoiding the temptation of international researchers “rocking up” to ministries in the Global South. We should instead leave space to nurture partnerships with local researchers who know and understand the breadth of key players – policy makers, NGOs, private sector, end-users – and can translate messages to those who need to hear them. The nature of longitudinal research helps catalyze these trends.  By developing strategic partnerships between international and local researchers over time, and breeding credible and dependable relationships with practitioners, longitudinal research teams can successfully position themselves as go-to generators of timely and useful evidence in times of crisis.