How to help researchers make the connections that matter

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are giving the world a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for its people and planet. But the clock is ticking. With seven years to go, and progress lagging against many of the targets, university research is playing a pivotal role: finding solutions to local and global challenges, advancing our understanding of the world and changing lives for the better.

But a critical part of the research lifecycle is often also its biggest challenge: turning discovery into reality.

If, in a global world, university research is to continue to find solutions to the vast and interlinked challenges set out in the SDGs – from poverty and inequality to climate change and disease – it will take a far more collaborative and equitable approach than has often been the case: an exchange of knowledge that draws on the skills and experience of different nations, sectors, disciplines and communities, despite the immense disparities that may exist between them.

One of the challenges is that university research – and efforts to translate it into action – inevitably reflects the unequal world in which we live. Policy-makers can only adopt the knowledge and recommendations of which they’re aware.

Yet our member universities – particularly in lower income countries – tell us that they feel the system is often stacked against them in terms of getting their research out there – whether through the short sightedness of institutional rankings or systemic biases in academic publishing.

Research partnerships between wealthy and less wealthy countries have often been felt to be extractive and one-sided, with one country setting the agenda for the perceived needs of another. And while some universities boast entire departments dedicated to getting research noticed, less well-resourced institutions may find that support peters out at the point of publication.

So, how can we shift this status quo and help researchers to make the connections that matter?

Collaboration is key

Last year, the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) worked with the African Research Universities Alliance and UK Research and Innovation to create a blueprint for how equitable international research collaboration should work.

Among its valuable recommendations is the need to increase university capacity in creating those all-important multi-sectoral partnerships that can really maximise the potential of research.

In forging such partnerships, organisations like the ACU can play an important role as advocates, intermediaries and conveners of disparate groups.

We are the only accredited Commonwealth organisation to represent higher education, with 500 member institutions across 50 countries. Two thirds of our members are in low- and middle-income countries, many of which are on the frontline of global challenges.

We not only fund research directly – through our own grants and fellowships, as well as running programmes on behalf of public and private donors – we actively support universities to build cultures in which research, and researchers themselves, can thrive into the future.

This role has enabled us to create an interface between universities, governments, donors and civil society to help turn ideas into policy and practice, with key stakeholders in the driving seat.

Let me use the ACU-led Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning project (PEBL) as an example. PEBL aims to increase access to higher education in parts of the world where demand outstrips supply by supporting universities in the design and use of online and blended learning.

The ACU was able to secure government funding for the project, draw in international partners with particular expertise in online learning and work with 23 universities in its network to co-create online learning modules that were aligned with their own distinct needs.

These sorts of international partnerships in higher education are highly effective in driving progress towards the SDGs, as shown in a study published earlier this year by the ACU and British Council.

By harnessing the potential of diverse disciplines, sectors and organisations, partnerships were shown to not only deliver added value to donors but, importantly, to help universities, policy-makers and others to share knowledge, drive innovation, and, ultimately, turn research into action.

Stronger, fairer foundations

Organisations like ours also have a key role to play in placing equality, sustainability and the enduring exchange of knowledge at the heart of how we fund, design and think about research.

We believe that funding for research must be accompanied by a commitment to strengthening capacity and building environments in which researchers can thrive and connect. Only by supporting an institution’s core capacity to manage, deliver and share research can we truly deliver impact beyond the lifecycle of a given project and create a foundation for research that will yield the breakthroughs we need.

This includes supporting projects that have the two-way exchange between researchers and the intended users of their research enshrined within their design and purpose, or designing programmes that, through grants and training, can strengthen capacity while creating a shift in research culture towards more public engagement and knowledge-sharing beyond academia.

An example is the Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) programme, led by the ACU with funding from the UK government. CIRCLE not only supported individual researchers to explore local solutions to the climate crisis, it worked simultaneously with their universities to improve their core capacity to support and promote research.

Training and funding – ringfenced specifically for the purpose – was made available to all researchers to help them get their work noticed by decision-makers and intended users. In other words, public engagement and exchange was an essential part of the project’s lifecycle and ambitions.

From the many reports we’ve received, this approach is already making a difference. In the oil-producing regions of south-east Nigeria, CIRCLE Fellow Doris Akachukwu visited rural communities with practical advice on how to restore heavily polluted soil to life.

Or in Ghana, Mavis Akuffobea-Essilfie’s outreach workshops have brought communities and policy-makers together to better understand how climate change affects women and girls.

But researchers aren’t always primed to engage non-academic audiences with their work. Just as knowledge exchange should be built into programme bids and funding requirements, so can training in research communication and engagement.

Our Blue Charter Fellows, for example, were trained in how to engage different audiences in their research into marine plastic pollution and contributed to the work of the Commonwealth Blue Charter to tackle the scourge of plastic waste in oceans across the world.

Other initiatives have gone one step further: training policy-makers themselves in how to interpret and use the research that universities create.

An integrated approach

All these examples are a reminder that our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals require an integrated approach: one that recognises that our greatest challenges – and their solutions – are interrelated and cannot be tackled in isolation.

Through communities of practice and collaborative projects, networks like the ACU can connect and convene international researchers from different disciplines to deliver transformative change – not only bringing multiple perspectives to shared problems but working together to tackle them.

In the words of author and researcher François Taddei: “No discipline knows more than all disciplines.”

But we can go one step further: by ensuring that non-academic stakeholders are included in the design and delivery of research at every stage, and that academic and non-academic expertise is embedded in policy-making, we can start to truly transcend boundaries and move towards a more connected and democratic approach to knowledge production, in which all have something to give and all have something to learn.

In the months ahead, the ACU will be representing higher education at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, at which a new commitment to sustainable land use – the Commonwealth Living Lands Charter – is likely to be set in motion.

We will be calling for university researchers to be embedded within all government action groups responsible for realising this commitment, helping to ensure that universities are able to share their considerable experience and expertise where, and with whom, it matters most.

The projects mentioned above are relevant to SDG 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, including the emphasis on providing “quality education” in targets 4.1 and 4.3, and the emphasis on inclusiveness and relevant education in target 4.a: “provide inclusive and effective learning environments for all”. They are also relevant to SDG 15: Life on land, which seeks to sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. The targets for all the SDGs are listed here.

Dr Joanna Newman is CEO and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.