BLOG | Are university-led projects the right way to have impact?

By Mark New, Principal nvestigator, ASSAR

The ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions) project aimed for its research to be stakeholder-relevant, use as much as possible a transdisciplinary (see box 1) approach, and continually strive for the knowledge we generated to be useful and to be used.  I think we got some of the way in achieving these objectives – examples of some of our successes are documented in our project “highlights” publication. And we have learned a lot on how we might do things better in future projects that follow this more traditional academically-led research approach to evidence generation.

BOX 1 - For ASSAR, transdisciplinary research encompassed several key dimensions: addressing a real-world problem; drawing on multiple disciplines in an integrated research approach; bringing together academics and practitioners into research teams from start to end.

But I am also left wondering if research led by academics based in universities is always the best way to generate evidence for impact. This is especially the case in climate adaptation, where one of the pressing needs is to figure out how make adaptation happen most effectively on the ground, to reduce the risks and improve the wellbeing for those who are most in need.

Academics working on climate change vulnerability, impacts and adaptation issues are especially good at diagnosis, using a range of research methods to understand a problem or situation, and to figure out underlying causes and reasons. Much of this work ends with a shopping list of possible solutions, and then hopes that someone else discovers these suggestions and tries to implement them. It is rare that the researchers themselves get involved in trialling and testing solutions and responses to the problems they have diagnosed. There is clearly a missing link that means that many possible solutions are not taken to trial, and if successful, to scale.

At the same, adaptation is happening in the real world, either autonomously as those affected try to response the climate risks that impact them, or driven by some mix of policy and funded project interventions. This work is generating a new type of “experiential” knowledge – learned on the job- that is rarely documented, and certainly not critically assessed.  Most funded adaptation projects are evaluated in some way, but often quite shallowly – checking whether the original indicators were met; whether the money was spent as proposed; highlighting successes, and often glossing over failures. While there is a shift to more reflective approaches to evaluation, these inevitably have to be relatively shallow, as the evaluators come in only once or twice during and after the project. They also do not often capture the experience that is gained from those involved in the project and or share evaluation insights into the wider climate adaptation knowledge system.

Two possible ways to do research differently that arise from my reflection in ASSAR are for researchers to move down the adaptation “value chain”, becoming more present in the solution and implementation spaces.

Some of the most exciting opportunities for researchers who want to move beyond diagnosis could occur through bringing their expertise to bear in designing and testing solutions for adaptation. There are examples of innovation incubators and design laboratories from other problem spaces that could be adopted for adaptation. One that might be appropriate to the types of problems that ASSAR has been addressing – those involving the most vulnerable – is the approach used by the D-School where “extreme” cases are used as the problem case, as these often help stimulate more radical solutions.

Further down the adaptation action chain are opportunities to embed research within on the ground adaptation programmes. This is a 180-degree inversion of the normal research process; rather than inviting practitioners to become involved in research, researchers are invited by practitioners to embed their research in on-the-ground adaptation actions and projects. Embedded research like this offers opportunities for deeper critical analysis of these projects than is usually available from standard evaluations, as well as documenting experiential knowledge that practitioners and communities develop as they adapt. Climate change research funders should consider partnering with adaptation implementation funders to support embedded researchers within the adaptation projects, helping to bridge the gap between research and practice, from a practice-led rather than research-led perspective.

There is still a place for traditional research – and the opportunities it offers for critical engagement with theory and blue skies ideas – but a lot of this research is rather derivative. Do we need yet another vulnerability study on yet another at-risk community that confirms what we already knew about the nature of vulnerability? Why not push to do research in the solution space, which is where many younger researchers are passionate to work. To enable this, new modes of research funding are needed from organisations such as IDRC: innovation spaces where it is OK to fail and working with bodies such as the Green Climate Fund to co-support practice-research partnerships.