Why research is impotent without communication
Updated: Aug 21, 2019
Dr Jemimah Njuki writes on what she has learned about communication through her work with WRENmedia, and the importance of effectively articulating research in order to improve lives.
I have worked with WRENmedia for many years now, and a definite highlight is that I am a better communicator. Not only have I learnt how to better communicate, but I have learnt how to have influence in different spaces with my communication, whether it be the media, policy or research space. I have observed how WRENmedia works with scientists, enabling them to articulate how their research connects to everyday societal problems, and how to transcend technical jargon to articulate project evidence to policy makers.
Another highlight has been witnessing the scientists I work with at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) who are experts in, for example, technology and biotechnology, articulate through the media how their research is relevant to smallholder farmers and to the development of their country. And I have learned how to communicate to and through the media, so that any information I have on a new innovation can be communicated to millions of people.
It has also been hugely important to me that scientists clearly articulate how gender intersects with their work, and that they are able to describe the implications of their research for both men and women. The combination of a very strong gender focus with a strong communication focus within IDRC's Cultivate Africa’s Future (CultiAF) programme has enabled a lot of the researchers to do this.
CultiAF: applied communication
At IDRC, we have a ‘Research Quality Plus’ framework, which takes into account various factors, such as the context for research, when assessing a project’s scientific rigour. Critically, the framework focuses on how you position research for use, and in a way that influences change – and this links back to our agency’s mandate of using research and innovation to tangibly improve peoples’ lives.
Part of positioning research so that it has a difference on peoples’ lives is being able to communicate that research from the onset – even to policy makers. You have to be able to clearly explain the development problem to be addressed, and the proposed research to address it. If this process does not happen at the beginning of a project, then the utility of the research can become very limited.
An example of effectively positioning and communicating research in order to ensure uptake, and influence policy, can be seen in the ‘INSFEED’ CultiAF project to make animal feed from insects in Kenya and Uganda. In both countries, regulations stipulate that any presence of insects in animal feed is a contaminate and therefore cannot be sold on the market. Yet, the project saw the potential of insects to replace soybean and fishmeal in animal feed in order to reduce costs and make livestock production – especially poultry and fish – much more economically viable for hundreds of thousands of farmers. In order to be able to create utility for that research, the team realised the importance of communicating these points to the regulatory authorities up front, rather than waiting until the research was finished and then being stopped by regulatory demands. Being able to communicate and engage policy makers and, in this case, regulatory authorities, was very important for bringing about positive change.
Project communication must therefore focus on what the research is trying to achieve, and how the research will move from the lab to the farm, and to the consumer. Again, in the case of INSFEED, it was critical to communicate with farmers and consumers about what it means to feed animals on insects. Part of the messaging focused on pointing out the natural consumption of insects by poultry and explaining that when chickens are scratching around on the ground – they are often looking for insects to eat.
The ability of scientists to come up with this simple media message and remove the stigma around the use of insects has been powerful. But a scientist sitting in the lab may not be able to articulate in this way, which is why effective, impactful communication tailored to engage important stakeholders is key to achieving project objectives.