The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University have compiled ambitious proposals for the next 75 years of science policy in a special section of Issues in Science and Technology. The publication highlights innovative ideas about “how to structure the resources of science to enable the best possible future,” according to the Issues website. Angela Bednarek of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Vivian Tseng of the William T. Grant Foundation (WTG) contributed an article about how they built the global Transforming Evidence Funders Network (TEFN), to support researchers, policy professionals, practitioners, and community leaders as they work together to transform how they generate, mobilize, and use evidence to solve society’s most pressing challenges.
Tseng, as senior vice president of program at WTG, and Bednarek, working with the Lenfest Ocean Program at Pew, identified what they call “engaged research” as an important strategy in their respective areas of work—educational and ocean conservation initiatives. Engaged research allows practitioners, policymakers, and other partners to collaborate with researchers to define problems and create evidence-informed solutions. Tseng and Bednarek found that cultivating relationships between these diverse groups can make research more useful and likely to inform decision-making in policy and practice. This collaborative approach has taken root across a wide range of issue areas, sectors, and locations, and it provides an opportunity to expand who participates in research and who benefits from the results. However, engaged research faces important challenges because of widespread and deeply entrenched ideas about how research should be conceived, conducted, and used.
Tseng and Bednarek also discovered a shared recognition that funders have a crucial role to play in supporting engaged research. Grant-makers set expectations for how research communities work with other groups to solve problems. For example, funders can build time and resources for engagement into the structure of their grants. Further, grant-making organizations can serve as an example, uniting across issue areas and disciplines to address entrenched societal challenges. To capture the growing momentum behind these collaborative approaches, turn research into action, and address the barriers to these efforts’ success, Tseng and Bednarek built TEFN, a network of 40 grant-making organizations.
TEFN participants have identified three areas where their coordinated action might bring about broader change:
Building the evidence base for evidence use. A rigorous and cohesive scholarship base can help ensure that the growing number of engaged research initiatives live up to their potential. TEFN participants are collaboratively developing a research agenda and exploring the creation of a global network that can connect what is being learned about research use across issue areas, sectors, locations, and disciplines.
Developing incentives for engaged research. Academic promotion, tenure, and other incentive systems still largely rely on research outputs that measure scholarly impact (such as peer-reviewed publications). But these outputs are not a good indication of the impacts of engaged research, which might include adoption into public policy or novel, evidence-informed solutions for a community organization. Several TEFN participants have already invested in grant-making efforts that support academic institutions’ development and implementation of guidelines for rewarding this work.
Strengthening the infrastructure for engaged research. The infrastructure in research institutions, government, and civic and community organizations needs to be built out to match shifts in academic incentives. It is difficult and often time consuming to convene partners around common goals, integrate knowledge from across sectors, and foster trusting relationships. However, the benefits outweigh these costs: Research systems will be better equipped and have greater potential to help solve society’s toughest problems. Targeted investment from grant-makers should aim to strengthen the knowledge and skills of the groups involved in these collaborations.
While the momentum behind TEFN’s global, cross-disciplinary network of funders is promising, these ambitious proposals will require coordination with a broader community, including the policymakers, researchers, and practitioners who are focused on evidence use.
Ben Miyamoto works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ evidence project.