To set priorities for research, ask the right questions

Have your say through T20Q: the Top 20 Questions for Forestry and Landscapes
Researchers in the field, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Douglas Sheil/CIFOR photo

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Editor’s Note: Top 20 Questions for Forestry and Landscapes will be a theme of discussion at the upcoming Forests Asia Summit, 5-6 May in Jakarta, Indonesia. The program, part of CIFOR’s Evidence-Based Forestry initiative, will be featured in the Summit’s Landscapes Issues Marketplace

How should research institutions such as CIFOR, with a global mandate and responsibilities, identify potential research priorities? How can they draw effectively on the knowledge, expertise and insights of the global community of researchers and practitioners? Several recent initiatives responding to questions like these in other topic areas have informed a new project to identify research priorities for forestry and landscapes.

First, horizon-scanning …

Sutherland et al’s most recent “Horizon scan of key global conservation issues” ends with a reflection on the role and value of the horizon-scanning approach, acknowledging Karl et al’s earlier work on how to build dialogue between science and policy: “Perhaps most importantly, horizon scanning can encourage researchers, policy makers, and practitioners to engage in joint fact-finding, a process through which parties with potentially diverse interests collaboratively identify, define, and answer scientific questions that hinder development of effective policies.”

A similar intent has motivated other, similar, recent ‘horizon-scanning’ exercises – for example, Pretty et al explained, in their “The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture”: “In this paper, we seek to improve dialogue and understanding between agricultural research and policy by identifying the 100 most important questions for global agriculture. … The aim is to use sound scientific evidence to inform decision making and guide policy makers in the future direction of agricultural research priorities and policy support.”

Most horizon-scanning exercises also rely primarily on a relatively small number of experts (20 and 55, respectively, in the two examples above) to identify priority issues or questions, although each of these may canvass opinion more widely. They then use Delphi techniques, viz. an iterative process of refinement by panel(s) of experts, to coalesce and refine the topics.

While various forest-related issues emerge in these environmentally or agriculturally focused horizon scans — for example, “extensive land loss in Southeast Asia from subsidence of peatland,” or “Can payments for ecosystem services (e.g. carbon sequestration, green water credits, biodiversity enrichment) lead to adoption of recommended land-use and management practices by resource-poor farmers in developing countries?” — these global surveys have not yet been emulated with a specific focus on forests, forestry or landscapes.

Then, T10Q …

A related but different approach to identifying the priority research questions for British forestry was developed, implemented and reported by Petrokofsky et al (here and here). They used a “collaborative, bottom-up approach” initiated through an online survey to draw from a greater diversity and number of stakeholders than is feasible with ‘conventional’ horizon-scanning methods. They then used a structured, Delphi-based process to identify and set priority topics.

Like the horizon-scanning exercises discussed above, the T10Q process and others like it provide the research community and research institutions with a strong basis for prioritizing research efforts and guiding resource allocations. That’s particularly helpful for institutions like CIFOR, with responsibilities to stakeholders globally, with their diverse interests and priorities.

Next, T20Q …

For these reasons, CIFOR and its partners in the Evidence Based Forestry (EBF) Initiative are building on this priority-setting work with the launch of a project called T20Q. Starting this May, T20Q — the Top 20 Questions for Forestry and Landscapes — will offer anyone interested the opportunity to have their say about research priorities to inform better relevant policy and practice about forestry and landscapes in their broadest sense, and in the context of the emerging Sustainable Development Goals.

Like its precursors, the T20Q process doesn’t make any prior assumptions about which topics are important; rather, it filters responses according to their content and identifies the priorities that emerge. Basic identifiers provided anonymously by respondents — such as age, gender, country and stakeholder group — will enable priority topics to be reported according to different regions, interest groups. So the project will in fact generate many ‘T20Qs’ and identify differences as well as commonalities across the global community of respondents. You can read more about it at the T20Q website.

Completing T20Q will take until early 2015. When it’s completed, the T20Q partners will share the outcomes widely, use them to prioritise topics supported by EBF systematic reviews, and draw on them to inform research priority setting processes such as CIFOR’s.

For questions about the topics in this article, please contact Peter Kanowski at

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