Does the pressure for impact compromise research?

When is the right time to talk publicly about new findings from a research project? This is subject I have been thinking about a lot recently. This past month, I have participated in a number of events designed to disseminate research results to relevant policy arenas and practitioner communities.
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    CIFOR scientist George Schoneveld interviews jatropha farmers in Zambia reportedly abandoned by an overly-ambitious outgrower scheme. Photo by Jeff Walker/CIFOR.

    BOGOR, Indonesia (28 June, 2011)_When is the right time to talk publicly about new findings from a research project? This is subject I have been thinking about a lot recently. This past month, I have participated in a number of events designed to disseminate research results to relevant policy arenas and practitioner communities.

    These included side events at the UNFCCC SBSTA in Bonn (one on agriculture as a driver of deforestation, and one specifically on bioenergy crops), a conference in London to launch preliminary findings of the Poverty and Environment Network (PEN) study on the contribution of forests to rural livelihoods, and the Oslo REDD Exchange to share early results of CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+ (GCS-REDD).

    In several cases, the research findings being shared at these events were based on partial data and/or preliminary analysis, and had not yet been published or subjected to peer review.  In the wake of Climategate (the 2009 controversy surrounding charges that climate scientists had manipulated data), this would appear to be risky.  On the other hand, the significant social and environmental impacts of forest loss underscore an urgency to share findings as soon as possible – especially those that could help avert harm to vulnerable communities and ecosystems. What is the right balance between prudence and responsiveness?

    This is but one aspect of a larger set of challenges facing “research for development” organizations such as mine, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and other member centers of the Consortium for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).  Most of our funding comes from development agencies, which are in turn accountable to their taxpayers for showing results. Our funders often tell us as we negotiate new grants, “We want the answers to all the questions you pose by yesterday.”

    In recent years, the pressure to demonstrate impact has intensified. Proposals for new CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) must include detailed – and if possible, quantified — “impact pathways” that map out precisely how research findings will be translated into on-the-ground results, such as higher rural incomes or reduced deforestation. The CIFOR-led CRP on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, approved in April, suggests some rather ambitious targets.

    Although scientists tend to resist these exercises – for fear of being held accountable for outcomes beyond their control — mapping out such impact pathways is a good discipline.  It forces us to be explicit in our assumptions about who will use our research results, and how such results could plausibly change behavior in ways that could lead to ultimate impacts.  And yet the pressure to show impact could have unintended negative consequences on the research enterprise itself.

    At the PEN conference in London earlier this month, several panelists engaged in a lively exchange on this dilemma.  One stressed the importance of each study being clear about its intended impact from the outset, while another warned that this could lead to an inappropriate shortening of the time horizons and narrowing of the scope of research agendas.  Indeed, tightly focused studies targeted to particular decision points are easier to “sell” in term of impact.  But might the pressure for impact push research organizations inappropriately far into the consulting business?

    Scientists often rightly argue that an important feature of research is that you don’t know what the outcome is going to be when you start, and are quick to offer anecdotes describing a research project that had impact, but in a completely different area than was initially envisioned.

    Contributing to this set of challenges is the difficulty of attributing impact, especially when it comes to policy research, and research designed to influence natural resources management (NRM) rather than (for example) to increase the yield of a particular grain crop.  The CGIAR’s Independent Science and Partnership Council has recently initiated a study of the impacts of NRM research – which have proven difficult to document in the past — with the hunch that different methods may be necessary to capture those impacts.

    At CIFOR, we are attempting to position our research agenda so that it optimizes between investing in and publishing the results of rigorous, long-term, globally-comparative studies (such as PEN and GCS-REDD), and spinning off interim results and conducting the one-off analyses necessary to respond to the shorter-term needs of our stakeholders.  As demand for our “product” has increased with the recent spike in global interest in forests and climate change, maintaining the right balance has gotten harder.

    It’s a problem that’s never solved, only managed, but it’s a good problem to have.

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