How could a Funder help Promote Research for Impact?

March 14, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Had an interesting chat recently (Chatham House rule, so no names) with some people wondering what a philanthropic funder with a bit of money and little/no bureaucratic constraints could do to encourage the uptake of evidence in policy making. After swiftly batting away any suggestion of a new database (cyber tumbleweed), we got onto some practical steps – please add your own.

Understanding the system

By all means start with ‘academics’ and ‘practitioners’ but don’t stop there. Each is a complex system, with very different relationships both to the topic, and to the other players. In academia, some are superkeen to change the world, and see their research as a means to achieve that, while others are more concerned with academic advancement, and fear this could be hindered by coming to be seen as a mere ‘policy wonk’, whose research is contaminated by having a pre-existing cause/conclusion to promote. As ever, funders need to dig into the ‘point of view of the other’ (POVO) to understand their (dis)incentives, before injecting any money into the system.

Good luck with that

That should include an institutional analysis – some academics work for institutions, eg thinktanks, that are under huge pressure to generate hundreds of days per year of highly paid consultancies. Others (often in universities) may be under less financial pressure, but may be less aligned with the values of practitioners. Tricky.

Identifying allies within the system

One place to start is the ‘linkers’ – academics with one toe in practice and vice versa. Putting a bit of cash into facilitating conversations and funding joint activities with those groups will close the gap between the two blobs and probably lead to unforeseeable, but interesting future collaborations.

At a local/national level, funders could support ‘circles of trust’ (their phrase, not mine). Sounds like building a ‘community of practice’ on particular issues or in certain geographies. Maybe some kind of challenge fund where people can bid for funding to set up a network of academics and practitioners to work together to tackle a specific problem they want to solve through a combination of research, advocacy and practice. Anyone got any existing examples/models for that?

As so often with influencing, this often comes down to relationships – both academics and practitioners building a big network so that people pull them in next time there’s an opportunity. But what if your preferred relationship is with a book or a database? Introverts can often flourish in academia, but are not going to start schmoozing at cocktail parties or cold calling decision makers. Their best bet may be to find a ‘knowledge intermediary’ who actually enjoys that stuff (count me out). Again, a possible role for funders in creating spaces for those conversations.

I suspect that in many cases, despite all those databases and wikis, people still turn to colleagues for advice on who to talk to/what to read. What about taking that seriously, rather than just wishing it could be replaced by a tech solution? Could funders find ways to support or improve that oral network, eg by helping it avoid traps such as always recommending that people pick the brains of old white men like me? Yes please!

Decolonising the Research System

If research is carried out, and credit duly given, to local/national researchers, it is more likely to have impact at a national level than the more familiar fly in/fly out system of extractive northern-led research. A funder could help replicate great initiatives like those that led to the Bukavu Series of blogs on the role of national researchers in global knowledge supply chains.

Set the Knowledge Free

Philanthropists can help pushing research funders to support Open Access publication as a default requirement in their research funding. Nothing turns off a practitioner more than gated papers, and increasingly, non-Open Access books. Definitely worth some advocacy to show what other funders are up to, and the impact of OA on practice.

Similarly for NGOs and other practitioners. A lot of their best work remains unpublished – as internal guidelines, papers etc. Sometimes it is based on a genuine consideration of risk, which is fine of course, but often it’s just because no-one thinks of it. Drives me bonkers. A default in favour of publication could be nudged along by funders.


How to design research for impact is probably the lecture I am most often asked to give, based on some great work by my Oxfam colleagues on its approach to extracting maximum impact from a tiny (by academic standards) research budget. Why not fund this in a more systematic way?

And that could include training on how to get more take-up of existing research, e.g. when a shock or scandal opens policy makers’ minds to new ideas and approaches, or shifts the ‘Overton Window’ to include topics previously considered fringe. Again, you’re up against incentives here – academics are often heads down on the next paper, and practitioners on the next programme or campaign. Tough to create the headspace to spot and act on opportunities to recycle past work, but some cash might help.

A word of caution. There is already huge money attached to this issue – 25% of UK University Research funding under the REF, for example. As far as I can see, it has only had limited impact in shifting academic research more towards focussing on uptake/impact. The power of paradigm maintenance remains strong in such areas as career advancement (e.g. getting published in peer reviewed journals, whether or not anyone reads them) and seems perfectly able to blunt even these big money initiatives.

So, a Theory of Change please – what you got?

Update: Looks like the funder may take a look at the Challenge Fund idea for bringing together academics and practitioner on particular problems – can you point us to some good precedents please?

March 14, 2023
Duncan Green