Ethics in #resupmeetup: Six things that people are talking about

Some initial feedback from the meeting on research uptake that is taking place in Kenya.

Kate Hawkins and Sally Theobald

10 February 2015

We are really enjoying our time at the ResUpMeetUp which is currently taking place in Kenya. There have been a diverse range of conversations, sessions and presentations, and we are only half way through! One of the things that struck us were the discussions about ethics and research uptake. Here are six things that people are talking about:

1. The tyranny of impact

In one of the first sessions of the conference Eliya Zulu (Afidep) cautioned us to consider ethics in research uptake. An increasing donor demand that researchers demonstrate ‘impact’ has the potential to encourage research generators to overstate the importance of their findings. What can be done?

2. What is quality?

We have heard from an all-male panel of experts in systematic reviews that the only form of research worthy of uptake is, well, systematic reviews. Being more charitable one panellist suggested that we could communicate around research – but only after it passes peer review. However, this view is at odds with the notion that research uptake activities should begin at the start of the research process to ensure the questions being posed are appropriate and address real world problems, challenges and gaps and that the work is fit for purpose more generally. Furthermore systematic reviews often fail to take qualitative research fully into account or indeed the whole range of relevant, context embedded, knowledge that decision makers should factor into their thinking.

3. Who funds? Who studies? Who uses?

There has been much talk at the #resupmeetup about the importance of generating evidence to inform the decisions of national level policy makers. Whilst this isn’t everyone’s focus audience, this is the default position that the conversation tends to fall back on. This is perhaps understandable as this is a DFID sponsored meeting of mainly DFID funded researchers and communicators: and this mirrors the priorities of research programmes funded by this donor. Taken to its extreme however this perpetuates a cycle of middle class, university educated funders – supporting middle class, university educated academics – to inform the perceived knowledge needs of middle class, university educated policy makers. Of course this is a crude characterisation but we need to ask ourselves, will this cycle of knowledge generation best meet the needs of the poor and marginalised? A body of research and learning on power and participation suggests not.

4. Competition or collaboration?

Many of the presentations we have seen have been given by particular projects and have showcased either the methods that they have used or their impact. Yet there has been little acknowledgement that we are sometimes in competition with each other to influence the same targets. There is a tension between encouraging projectised research uptake work and encouraging researchers to make available for consideration the breadth of research and to discuss what their work means in the context of a broader set of evidence. We need to talk more about this.

5. Who assesses the ethics of research uptake?

As Milly Natimba from ReBUILD has pointed out our proposals for research ethics review rarely capture the detail and content of our actual implementation when it comes to research uptake. Are Ethics Review Boards made up of academics actually the right people to pass judgements on communications outputs and activities? Might a multi-stakeholder group be more appropriate, one that includes communities affected by the issues that are being explored and experts in communications?

6. Practice what we preach?

For a group of research uptake experts to put forward an all-male panel is deeply regrettable.