Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch is a research associate / PhD candidate at Bonn University with a background in development and social-ecological system research. He is a geographer by training and has worked with Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as an advisor on food security and agricultural policy. Within the TransRe-project he works towards a social network perspective on rural resilience to environmental risks.

May 16th 2015 by Till Rockenbauch

Beyond the ivory tower: What to consider when working on the science practice divide

When it comes to climate change adaptation, overcoming the science-practice divide is a high priority. An increasing number of researchers are spending considerable efforts to communicate research findings and demonstrate their relevance by coming up with recommendations for practice. At the same time, practitioners and policy makers are striving for opportunities to use scientific research findings in order to improve the adaptation policy process. So why are so many research findings ending up on the shelf? And what can researchers do in order to transfer their results into meaningful action?

These are core questions each research project has to address when aiming to bridge the science-practice divide. This holds also for TransRe project, which aims to come up with a toolkit for realizing the potential of migration for rural resilience. As a first step towards tackling these challenges, the TransRe project gathered last month in Chiang Mai for a toolkit development workshop given by Hartmut Fünfgeld RMIT). In this blog post I am striving to share some more personal thoughts to this by drawing on my working experiences in the development sector:

Too well I remember the many nicely illustrated handbooks, guides, manuals and policy briefs flooding my desk. Haunted by short deadlines and trapped in endless meetings, I had to decide whether to read or ignore each offering within a view minutes. The accuracy of information or practical details provided were not even my first selection criteria, but rather appealing messages that would be helpful in promoting my employer's political and institutional agenda were more important.

With this personal experience in mind, here are some suggestions on what researchers should be aware of when transferring knowledge into action:

Address multiple needs
The challenge of anyone intending to give advice to practitioners lies not only in identifying the needs of the final beneficiaries/target group, but in identifying the needs of the persons and institutions that are expected to apply this advice. These intermediate target group's needs can be of a technical nature (for example, how to make use of migration for the improvement of rural livelihoods), organizational or strategic nature (for example, how to guide an inclusive process with various stakeholders in the migration-adaptation arena, how to promote migration as adaptation in the international discourse, how to communicate results to media and society, or how to tap new sources of funding). In order to be applicable, not all issues can be addressed at the same time. That's why it is important to clearly define target groups as well as boundaries of what issues should be addressed.

Provide long-term consultancy
Developing a sound product is one challenge. Another is bringing it into action. Even well-done toolkits or handbooks might be unattractive to practitioners if there's no fertile framing condition making its use relevant. In order to bring it into use, its development should be embedded within a long-term process that comprises not only knowledge production, but various stages of mainstreaming. This could include, for example, an official kick-off, setting up a continuous communication channel between toolkit developer and future applicants, testing and piloting the toolkit in the field, involvement of additional stakeholders for refining content, and identification of future partners and funders for up-scaling the application and policy consultancy.

Account for political economy
When stressing these issues I don't want to conclude that researchers shouldn't be concerned about content when designing a toolkit. What I want to stress, however, is that many researchers tend to underestimate the political economy of the development sector. There is a difference between technical and political viability. A toolkit or handbook that does not fit the institutional and political agenda of the actors that finally should apply it will be of little impact. No organization will work against its internal logic regardless what scientific findings might suggest. In the case of the TransRe toolkit this means that addressing an institution or organization that is actually not interested in the issue of migration as adaptation, for practical or for strategic reasons, might be the wrong partner for bringing knowledge into action. The same accounts for any institution or organization that might be interested, but not having the means for upscaling the toolkit's application, either due to very specific areas of intervention or due to a weak voice in the climate change discourse.

Get involved
Finally, my call for the better acknowledgment of the political economy of the development sector should not be understood as a justification of its routines and practices. I just want to draw attention to the wide range of political aspects involved when knowledge is "transferred into practice". We can't turn a blind eye on these mechanisms. We have to work with them and not against them, if we want to change practice.

Certainly, these are things TransRe will keep in mind as we progress with our aim of going beyond the ivory tower.