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TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Jun19/01)
10 June 2019
Third World Network


United Nations: Adequate research uptake essential to meet 2030 Agenda

Published in SUNS #8917 dated 29 May 2019

Geneva, 28 May (Kanaga Raja) – Adequate research uptake in the United Nations system is essential in order to comprehend the dynamic trends in economic, social and environmental developments and to anticipate and prevent emerging challenges by channelling and supporting critical thinking in policy debates.

[“Uptake” is the rate or act of accepting something. SUNS]

This is one of the main conclusions in a report by the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) on “Strengthening policy research uptake in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.

The report (JIU/REP/2018/7) was prepared by JIU Inspector Mr Petru Dumitriu.

The report notes that UN research is disproportionally solicited from and produced by universities and research centres in the global North, instead of building the national capacities of countries in the global South.

On a recommendation, the report has called upon the UN Secretary-General and the Executive Heads of other UN system organizations to review the level of involvement of researchers from the South and adopt policies and frameworks that will stimulate capacity-building for all dimensions of the policy research functions, including research uptake at the national level, and report to the UN General Assembly and to the governing bodies, respectively, by the end of 2020.

In his report, the Inspector found that while the major conceptual products, such as flagship publications and other research products of a global scope, represent a highly visible interface between the United Nations system and Governments, universities and the public at large, its internal research processes are rather opaque and have never been considered major organizational vectors by decision-makers.

Many United Nations organizations put their own specific stamp on research products when they disseminate the most relevant information about their work, strategic thinking and vision on global issues in order to create impact.

However, the production, costs and uptake of research have not been considered by policymakers with the attention and transparency they deserve, said Mr Dumitriu.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development heightens the imperative for more efficient policy research uptake, he added.

Indeed, the 2030 Agenda, in its universal, holistic, and integrative approach, cuts across all dimensions of sustainable development and implies more collaboration and inter-disciplinarity at the system-wide level and in relationships with other stakeholders.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires, among other things, informed prioritization and planning at the national and regional levels and evidence-based policies.

“Adequate research uptake is essential in order to comprehend the dynamic trends in economic and social development and thereby better anticipate and prevent emerging challenges by channelling critical thinking in policy debates,” said the Inspector.

Using interdisciplinary and collaborative research as a means to strengthen research uptake is not optional.

“The complexity of the mandates of the United Nations system and the multiplicity of actors, organizations, governance models, markets, technological developments and other causal factors, which work simultaneously, warrant not only a revision of policy research uptake at the system-wide level, but also a new vision for it,” Mr Dumitriu concluded.

According to the JIU Inspector, the overall objective of the review was to offer evidence on the uptake of policy research, identify gaps and overlaps in research cycles and outline ways for the United Nations system to produce and use research more effectively, in particular in support of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

According to the JIU report, in the absence of a widely known and accepted definition, for the purposes of this review, the concept of policy research uptake encompasses all activities that: (a) support the supply of research by ensuring that research topics are relevant through engagement with intended users, communicating research effectively and synthesizing and repackaging researc h for different audiences; and (b) support the use of research by building the capacity of research users, in particular policymakers, to access, evaluate, synthesize and use evidence.

As the last stage of the research function, the premises of its efficiency are embedded in the previous stages (research agenda-setting, choice of research products, quality control, mainstreaming and integration and communication).

The demand for policy research across organizations in the United Nations system responds to various needs, differentiated by the nature of their respective mandates and responsibilities in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the specific necessities related to programmes and projects, changes in strategies and adaptation to the dynamics of the operating environment.

Beyond such differences, there are several organizational objectives for which the support of policy research is essential:

* To generate evidence that can inform and guide policy, programming and advocacy, shape priorities and support operational activities;

* To collect and analyse data in order to identify and monitor trends, patterns and emerging issues in an objective and trusted manner;

* To make available relevant criteria for decision-making;

* To understand barriers and opportunities, and articulate evidence-based policymaking options;

* To understand and support the development of norms and standards, and guidelines and codes of practice;

* To help enhance the standing of the United Nations as an authoritative and responsive source of knowledge.

The needs of member States are fundamental to setting research agendas. The constant review of research mandates, as well as the need to ensure clear reporting lines, are also necessary to enhance the efficiency of research processes, said the Inspector.

He added that the lack of such support in decision-making can lead to the duplication of efforts and activities and to fragmentation and inconsistency in approaches to the same policy area or in understanding the needs of member States.

It can also lead to lack of awareness regarding the entire picture of a particular policy challenge, insufficient ability to share findings of common interest and loss of time and resources, as well as increase the risk of making poor decisions.

The JIU report also noted that the overwhelming majority of participating organizations could not provide figures on the financial resources spent on research activities.

The reason offered was that such activities were dispersed across various units and field presences, and their costs subsumed under the umbrellas of various projects, programmes and operational activities.

As a result, the Inspector said that he could not come to a clear conclusion on the overall financial and human resources used for research production and uptake.

SOME MAIN FINDINGS

Highlighting some main findings on internal research production, the Inspector said that the policy research landscape of United Nations system entities is extremely diverse.

The review showed considerable variations in the way organizations comprehend and operationalize research activities.

This heterogeneity – inherent to organizations with different internal capacities and resources – is compounded by programmatic/operational requirements that vary markedly, with some organizations being heavily research- based and oriented towards capacity-building, while others fulfil operational functions.

In some decentralized organizations, the quality assurance for policy research and uptake is not consistent throughout the organization.

The headquarters of an entity may not always be aware of research undertaken at the field level.

According to the Inspector, limited coordination between the headquarters and the country offices, and among technical experts, communication experts and operating units, can also pose risks to dissemination and uptake, including the fragmentation or duplication of efforts and resources, inconsistencies and a lack of coherence.

Guidelines and policies on the cycle of production, quality assurance and the dissemination of research, where they do exist, are necessary but not sufficient, said the Inspector.

Research processes are not always integrated into the strategic vision of the organization.

The vision and actions for research uptake, developed to ensure that findings are read and validated by a broader audience and have an impact, are not always envisaged in policy research planning.

There is also little transparency regarding the costs of research in terms of human and financial resources.

For many research products, there was little clarity, and even divergent opinions, among interlocutors of the JIU, with regard to what fell under the category of policy research.

While the Inspector said he acknowledges that the divergence of opinions corresponds to, and in some cases may satisfy, the specific research needs of organizations, the lack of horizontal clarity among staff may also reflect the absence of corporate guidance and transparent agenda-setting.

The current monitoring frameworks for policy research uptake are not entirely suitable for capturing the use and relevance of research products, he added.

With a few notable exceptions, the review team failed to identify assessments or any form of substantive feed-back channel or follow-up on policy uptake by their respective target audiences in the long term.

Monitoring was usually limited to quantitative measurements. Even when uptake surveys were undertaken, they did not adequately capture the findings, nor did they disaggregate the responses according to the target groups.

Performance indicators on uptake were not always anchored in clearly defined benchmarks; instead, they seemed to reflect what organizations thought they could achieve based on previous experience.

Most organizations have not successfully determined how to best utilize existing capacities for policy research uptake, although such capacities do exist.

Staff exposed to both research and policy roles tend to have a better understanding of the dynamics of policy-relevant research.

However, the insufficiency of internal skills’ mapping for uptake leads organizations to seek resources externally, rather than incentivizing and training their own staff.

While research is meant to lead to innovation and transformation, the policy research agenda is dominated by safe or less controversial topics, recurrent themes and the replication of existing ideas, including with respect to the choice of research topics and methods.

Research managers often follow bureaucratic imperatives rather than incentivizing United Nations staff to carry out research. Sometimes, the administrative imperatives prevail over intellectual autonomy, said Mr Dumitriu.

The Inspector, however, said that the above findings do not imply that there are no good practices across the United Nations system.

Admittedly, the good practices cannot be replicated as such, in view of the differences among the mandates, resources and specific needs of individual organizations.

Nevertheless, the report identified and highlighted some good practices in the hope that they will at least inspire other organizations to do more with existing means, he said.

All things considered, the Inspector believes that a movement towards more efficient uptake, based on a few guiding principles and modus operandi for communication and collaboration, would lead all United Nations organizations to act as a system-wide research network.

In his main findings on the use of externally produced policy research, the Inspector said in order to complement the findings from the participating organizations of the JIU, perspectives from academic communities were collected through a perception survey and a mini-questionnaire, which were disseminated for the Unit by five global academic networks in a praiseworthy spirit of partnership.

A total of 492 researchers, university teachers and social and political scientists responded.

The twin objectives of the academic consultation were to identify ways for the United Nations system to make the best use of external knowledge resources and to build bridges with the academic community.

A majority of respondents believed that their access to United Nations resources was either insufficient or non- existent (46.3 per cent and 11.4 per cent, respectively), while 30.6 per cent of respondents said that they had satisfactory access to United Nations interlocutors and information.

There is real interest on the part of the academic community in the 2030 Agenda and the vision behind it.

A majority of respondents agreed that their organizations systematically or selectively reflected Sustainable Development Goals in their research agendas (28.8 per cent and 46.3 per cent, respectively).

However, respondents believed that their research products were far from being well used: over 60 per cent of respondents reckoned that the United Nations system had used academic research products insufficiently or not at all.

Asked about the influence of external research on United Nations decision-making and norm-setting, the majority of respondents (62.1 per cent) felt that the research had insufficient or no influence at all.

In general, the report found that the organizations in the United Nations system benefit considerably from external expertise, including from academic entities.

For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has the highest number (344) of external partnerships with academic/research institutions, given its leading role in the production of guidelines and recommendations for clinic al practice or public health policies.

Likewise, though agencies with substantial operational footprints, such as UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), produce a substantial amount of research internally, they also rely heavily on external partners.

The Inspector went on to highlight the following challenges:

* There is a lack of strategy and support/resources from the research side to streamline knowledge in a format that is fit for uptake;

* There is a preference in the United Nations system for consultancy, and limited interest in or even fear of debate regarding areas of uncertainty that are central to the pertinence of research contribution;

* United Nations research is disproportionally solicited from and produced by universities and research centres in the global North, instead of building the national capacities of countries in the global South and working with their researchers to support the finding of solutions to the problems of their countries;

* Researchers face difficulties in navigating United Nations bureaucracy and politics and in overcoming the United Nations confidentiality constraints – an inhibiting factor that is compounded by the absence of a signalling mechanism for the United Nations that can communicate its research needs to the academic community;

* Knowledge management systems within the United Nations are inadequate to guide staff in finding and using relevant external research;

* There is a lack of transparency and openness in the selection of research topics and researchers;

* There is an absence of systematic and predictable processes, practices and frameworks connecting the United Nations system and academic communities for research projects regarding the 2030 Agenda.

According to the JIU report, the academic survey provided substantive views on the characteristics of efficient policy research uptake and suggestions for desirable forms of institutionalized interaction and partnerships.

Such partnerships would facilitate better understanding of perspectives and sharing of concerns, and would frame and develop a common language towards solutions, said the Inspector.

They would also allow academic knowledge to be planned and developed more consistently in view of its policy relevance, while allowing United Nations agencies to involve the scholarly community on a regular basis.

A CASE STUDY

During the review, the Inspector said that he found numerous examples of the use of research outcomes for decision-making and action on the Sustainable Development Goals.

A single topic – migration – was chosen as a thematic lens in order to illustrate a case of multi-disciplinary scope of the policy research function within the broader 2030 Agenda framework.

As migration is a global, multi-faceted and multi-layered issue, the Inspector thought that relevant conclusions could be useful, through projection and de-construction, to conceptualize research needed for other complex Sustainable Development Goal areas.

Such areas would have two features in common: the interdisciplinary nature of the topic and the imperative for inter-agency cooperation in research.

For the particular context of the current review, and on the basis of the information collected through an additional special questionnaire on migration, the two criteria have been contextualized as follows:

* Inter-disciplinary research, which implies that migration touches not only on the thematic mandate of some leading agencies, such as the International Organization for Migration, but also impinges on the multi-faceted concerns and activities of other United Nations organizations.

* Collaborative research, which implies co-design, co-production and co-use, or at least a systematic and institutionalized process of consultation among agencies.

According to the JIU report, the analysis of the case study on migrational lowed the Inspector to qualify the current developments on migration as a good practice, as they showed that such criteria might be applicable to other areas of interest pertaining to the 2030 Agenda, and to extract three basic conclusions:

* The collaborative research reflects, by and large, the necessity of adding an interdisciplinary perspective to research activities;

* The current collaboration scheme is more a result of separate initiatives and case-by-case needs than a systematic process of collaboration characterized by joint agenda-setting, knowledge-sharing and the co-design and co-production of research;

* While various undertakings do not necessarily converge in the same direction, there is an emerging trend towards more systematic collaborative research.

SOME RECOMMENDATIONS

The JIU report makes the following 12 recommendations on improving the impact and quality of policy research:

Recommendation 1: The Executive Heads of the United Nations system organizations that do not have research guidelines and policies in place should consider establishing, as appropriate, a minimum set of standards on research production and uptake by the end of 2021.

Recommendation 2: The Executive Heads of the United Nations system organizations should establish, in the set-up of their programme budgets and finance (cost accounting) systems, a means to report on the cost of research activities by the end of 2020.

Recommendation 3: The Economic and Social Council should request a comprehensive review of the research agenda of the regional commissions with respect to their research priorities, including partnering and resources allocated, in view of their role as think tanks in the context of the 2030 Agenda.

Recommendation 4: The Executive Heads of United Nations system organizations should carry out periodic assessments of specific research needs and of potential suppliers of research products and associated costs, with the long-term objective of strengthening internal capacities for research, as appropriate, and making systematic use of research produced by academia.

Recommendation 5: The Secretary-General of the United Nations should extend his commitment to assess the work of research and training institutes and include the research work of other United Nations system organizations, in the light of the system-wide findings and recommendations made in the present report.

Recommendation 6: The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his capacity as Chair of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, should consider calling on the Executive Heads of United Nations system organizations who have not yet done so to establish a system-wide policy on open data access, supporting software and research-sharing among the United Nations system organizations.

Recommendation 7: The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Heads of other United Nations system organizations should review the level of involvement of researchers from the South and adopt policies and frameworks that will stimulate capacity-building for all dimensions of the policy research functions, including research uptake at the national level, and report thereon to the General Assembly and to the governing bodies, respectively, by the end of 2020.

Recommendation 8: The Executive Heads of the United Nations system organizations involved in the United Nations Network on Migration should instruct the relevant units to assess the options of inter-agency collaboration, on the basis of converging interests and specific competencies, with regard to decision-making on migration-related research projects, by the end of 2019.

Recommendation 9: The governing bodies of the United Nations system organizations should take measures to ensure that commitments to inter-agency collaboration, including through the establishment of a global data knowledge platform and the facilitation of academic exchanges, as stipulated in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, are implemented by the end of 2020.

Recommendation 10: The General Assembly should take measures to elevate the representation and the use of policy briefs produced by the specialized research entities of the United Nations system, based upon a report to be submitted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, at the latest during its seventy-fourth session (2019-2020).

Recommendation 11: The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Director-General of UNESCO should consider the creation, on an experimental and voluntary basis, of a United Nations – Academic Joint Publication Board with the task of identifying research needs at the system-wide level and the most efficient ways to produce, disseminate and uptake policy research in a collaborative and participatory manner, by the end of 2020 at the latest.

Recommendation 12: The Secretary-General of the United Nations, in consultation with all Executive Heads of the United Nations system organizations, should encourage long-term partnerships with academic communities at the global, regional and national levels, and establish basic guidelines for such partnerships.

 


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