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Engaging Independent Researchers: The Trials of Shaden Q. and the Vaccine Campaign

Independent research has high potential to fill capacity and information gaps because it provides opportunities to bring in sector and context experts to weigh in on key information relevant to program design and implementation. However, for a variety of reasons, independent research can often end up consuming precious resources only to be left unread and banished to the annals of an organization’s program database. Let’s follow the commissioning and roll out of an imaginary independent research project in order to explore some of the benefits and pitfalls of organizational engagements with independent researchers.

Reasons for externalizing research are usually quite straightforward. First, there is a clear need for specialized researchers with sector and context-based expertise that many organizations lack. Second, the commissioning agencies might not have the time to take a closer view of key considerations while rolling out their programs because they are busy with existing projects or tackling a mountain of logistical and administrative tasks required at the onset of any new project. For these reasons, hypothetical Accra-based researcher, Shaden Q. of the Africa Research Organization has recently been hired to conduct community perceptions research for a vaccine campaign in West Africa.

Proximity has identified five actions through Shaden Q’s hypothetical case study that would improve the engagement of clients with independent researchers as well as the quality of the research.

1. Identification of Research Needs and Drafting Clear ToRs: The best footing for an independent research initiative is a concise and consistent Terms of Reference (ToR) that clearly outlines the research needs. If the TOR is not clear to Shaden or asks for unrealistic activities or timelines, then she will not be able to develop a comprehensive proposal. For example, the TOR might state that the research requires representative statistics for 6 or 7 different samples – data collection that would require thousands of surveys collected randomly – and is meant to happen over the course of one month. Shaden will need to make significant imaginative stretches during the proposal development phase. ToRs don’t necessarily need to include detailed methodologies since it can be useful for commissioners to receive expert inputs on a variety of approaches and ideas, but applicants should at least be able to understand the research question and have enough detail on research parameters that they are able to come up with a solid implementation plan. Parameters should be realistic in terms of budgets, timelines and actual information needs. Commissioners will end up with a half-baked proposal because of this folly, and they are likely to waste a lot of time in the contracting phase negotiating a realistic plan.

2. Incorporation of the Research Process in the Client’s Workflow: The Vaccine Program Manager and Shaden Q. are likely to face serious issues if this research is not properly incorporated into the organization’s workflow. Independent researchers commonly complain that the broader support structure and utilization for external researchers is weak and poorly communicated to the rest of the program team who may be expected to support the effort. Shaden Q. might reach out to other members of the organization’s Health Program to request background documents or meetings, such as with the Vaccine Project Manager (PM), only to find the PM to be completely surprised by this person’s existence and her pending involvement in the PM’s work.

3. Communication of Research to Internal and External Stakeholders and Beneficiaries: Siloed research coordination can threaten projects by leaving gaps in terms of who is responsible for following up on recommendations. Shaden Q. may discover that parents in the target communities have serious reservations about vaccinating their children because children got sick after a similar initiative in a nearby community. If Shaden’s research has not been properly communicated to those responsible for launching the vaccine campaign, then this highly important finding will likely fall to the wayside.

4. Research parameters driven by strong approaches and methodologies and not by budget and timeline constraints: Circling back to the need for clear and concise ToRs, independent research is best leveraged when it can produce findings that are based in scientific, evidence-based methods. Too often are methods sacrificed on the altars of speed and economy. Shaden might propose a beautifully constructed methodology in the beginning, but either due to delayed contract negotiations, hard deadlines and/or logistical, security or budgetary delays, she has to cut it by a third or rush to meet unrealistic targets. If this is the case, her research could amount to surface-level findings at best, and incorrect findings or misrepresentations at worst.

5. Targeted Dissemination of Research Findings: Why even do research if those who would benefit from findings ever finds out about it? Dissemination of research is paramount to improving cross-cutting and cross-agency programming as well as to reduce duplication of efforts. Little does Shaden know, but the Regional Office of the commissioning agency’s competitors has identified a similar gap and is just about to commission Charlie B for almost the exact same research. If Shaden can’t communicate her findings even to those who are working in similar areas, then resources are wasted and knowledge production is stunted. It is understood that some information is proprietary and might cover subjects too sensitive to be shared publicly; however, ensuring that research ends up in the hands of carefully selected decision makers and others working on similar issues should be a priority for all involved. Otherwise – really - what’s the point?

Independent research can only reach its full potential with clear communication on timelines and methodologies, thorough understanding and agreement on how findings will tie into programs, and when the relevant program stakeholders are informed on the existence and provide full buy-in to the research being conducted. Realistic, evidence-driven research parameters and well-conceived dissemination plans are also fundamental elements of a successful independent research project. Key suggestions for agencies who seek to improve their engagements with external researchers are as follows:

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