Our research: striving towards excellence

What does excellent research mean? And how can it be achieved? We have developed a booklet that sets out a vision of how excellent policy and action research that contributes to sustainable development can be carried out.

David Dodman's picture
Insight by 
David Dodman
13 September 2012
A researcher speaks to a cotton farmer in Mozambique.

A field team researcher talks to a farmer about growing cotton near his field in Meceburi Forest Reserve, Mozambique. Photo: Copyright, Mike Goldwater

All too often, the people who make decisions and implement projects lack adequate information – with potentially harmful consequences. Organizations, like IIED, which aim to produce policy-relevant research have a responsibility to make sure that their research produces evidence of sufficient quality to inform these decisions, and to ensure the most positive outcomes possible.

Doing excellent research is difficult at the best of times. But doing excellent research on some of the world’s biggest environment and development challenges brings new challenges and opportunities.

Some of the challenges IIED faces include: 

  • working within complex political situations and over-stretched infrastructure that can limit access to field locations;
  • working with marginalised, vulnerable or mobile people;
  • needing to make decisions and recommendations quickly to respond to policy-making windows.

Over the last few years, IIED staff and partners have been working together to identify the key elements of excellent research to inform sustainable development, and to develop approaches that we can use to achieve this.

We began by holding discussions inside the institute where we were able to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our research approaches and outputs, and then started a programme to reflect on and strengthen particular elements of our research work, such as our use of particular research methods and approaches, and our skills in publishing in different types of outputs. Staff throughout the institute have contributed ideas and discussed the content at length, and we have benefitted from the insights of our wide network of “critical friends”.

We see ourselves as part of a broader community of research and practice, able to learn from and to influence partners in the UK and around the world. The new paper is intended to contribute to this conversation. For example, a conference session at the European Evaluation Society next month will be thinking through some of the issues raised in this paper.

Going beyond traditional metrics

The resulting paper is not intended to be authoritative, definitive or prescriptive; it’s a confident statement of the principles we believe to be valuable that can guide research to inform sustainable development policy.

The paper goes beyond promoting traditional academic measures of excellent research, which have tended to prioritise methodological rigour and the reliability of data. These are obviously important principles, but the paper also argues for the importance of ethics, a research process that involves partnership and empowerment, and results that contribute to positive social and environmental change. It suggests that excellent research in this field should:

  • require meaningful engagement with a community of knowledge and practice (including an appropriate review process)
  • provide benefits to communities involved in the research and who will be affected by its outcomes throughout the whole process (including the formulation of research questions, the deployment of methodologies, and the uptake of findings);
  • be communicated in appropriate ways to the right people who can use it to act effectively.

Research quality team

IIED now has a cross-cutting Research Quality team that will next address issues, such as developing guidelines and principles for specific elements of research (including research ethics), working alongside partners to ensure research is of a high standard, and providing support to our own staff to strengthen their own research skills and capacities.

Read Towards excellence: policy and action research for sustainable development. Are you carrying out a similar process? If so, or if you have questions or would like further information leave a comment below.