As the shift to institutionalisation of evidence use gains ground, what role can researchers play?
30 August 2021
Author: Rose N. Oronje, Ph.D.
The ELA initiative has implemented interventions aimed at inspiring and empowering the AAS’s researchers to engage governments to use science and innovation and champion the institutionalization of evidence use. Photo: AAS researchers during a research communications and policy engagement training workshop held between 27-31 January 2020 in Nairobi.

Efforts to bridge the evidence-to-policy gap have been shifting from individual-focus and often sporadic activities such as conducting a research dissemination workshop once a research study is completed, to taking a systemic approach to address the underlying factors responsible for the gap. This systemic approach to bridging the evidence-to-policy gap is often referred to as institutionalisation of evidence use. Efforts to institutionalise evidence use focus on strengthening institutional systems, structures, processes, procedures, and mechanisms that encourage and enable sustained use of evidence in decision-making. In a context where evidence use is institutionalised, evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) is a routine practice that is enabled by functional systems, structures, investments, capacities and incentives.

The shift to institutionalising evidence use is seen as critical for nurturing a culture of evidence use in decision-making by governments and other development actors. The African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) is one of the institutions in Africa steering this shift based on our experiences and lessons over the last ten years. One of the initiatives we have designed and implemented as part of our efforts to contribute to the institutionalisation of evidence use in Africa is the Evidence Leaders in Africa (ELA) initiative.

The purpose of the ELA initiative, implemented between November 2018-July 2021, was to expand African researchers’ leadership in promoting and enabling increased use of evidence in policy formulation and implementation by African governments. Funded by the Hewlett Foundation, the ELA initiative was a partnership between AFIDEP and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS). The AAS aims to see transformed lives in Africa through science, technology and innovation (STI).

Among others, the AAS has a network of senior, mid-career and upcoming scholars working across the continent to generate evidence and innovation needed to drive sustainable development. AAS researchers are broadly categorised into three groups. The first category is the AAS Fellows, who are distinguished individuals who have reached the highest level of excellence in their field of expertise and have made contributions to the advancement of STI in Africa. The second category is the AAS Affiliates, who are promising African early and mid-career scientists who receive support from AAS to develop into world class research leaders. And the third category is the AAS Grantees, who are researchers who have received research grants from the AAS.

The ELA initiative has implemented interventions aimed at inspiring and empowering the AAS’s researchers to engage governments to use science and innovation and champion the institutionalization of evidence use.

Interventions Implemented under the Evidence Leaders in Africa Initiative
The ELA initiative had three expected outcomes. The first outcome was “Increased number of academic leaders championing EIDM in Africa”. To achieve this outcome, we implemented three activities: conducted an EIDM sensitisation workshop for AAS Fellows to increase awareness and interest in the role researchers can play in efforts to institutionalise evidence use; conducted an EIDM training workshop and mentoring programme for AAS Affiliates (early- and mid-career scientists); and introduced an EIDM leadership award within AAS Awards scheme.

The second expected outcome was “Increased number of government agencies in East and West Africa taking specific actions to institutionalise EIDM”. The activity implemented to achieve this outcome was the provision of four seed grants to individual AAS Fellows in Nigeria (2), Tanzania (1) and Uganda (1) to design and implement initiatives that promote the institutionalisation of evidence use in government agencies in their countries (read about one the grantees).

The third and final expected outcome was “Deepened evidence and space for EIDM learning in Africa”. The activity implemented to realise this outcome was the hosting of an EIDM lesson-sharing conference for AAS researchers (Fellows, Affiliates and Grantees).

Lessons from the Implementation of the Evidence Leaders in Africa Initiative
Researchers’ interest in EIDM is high, but understanding and capacity in EIDM are low
The ELA initiative attracted a lot of interest from AAS researchers, indicating that researchers have a lot interest in playing a role in efforts that will enable their research to be used and ultimately make a difference in people’s lives. However, researchers’ understanding of EIDM was low. Similarly, researchers’ capacities to effectively engage in EIDM were low. This was demonstrated both at the sensitization workshop for AAS Fellows, and the EIDM training workshop for AAS Affiliates and Grantees.

Given these two facts, it was therefore not surprising that researchers’ understanding of the concept of institutionalizing evidence use was even lower. This was evident in the low number of applications received for the seed grant programme, and the few relevant abstracts received for the conference. For the seed grant programme, we received only 11 applications, even after a one-month deadline extension. Out of the 11, only 5 had potential to contribute institutionalising evidence use. For the conference, we received 72 abstracts, out of which only 28 were relevant to the conference’s theme and sub-themes. Even then, most of the 28 abstracts were about researchers’ efforts to disseminate their research as opposed to efforts to institutionalise evidence use.

Researchers are making some efforts to get their research used
The 11 applications received for the EIDM leadership award and the 28 abstracts entries relevant to the conference theme and sub-themes demonstrate there are some ongoing efforts by researchers to promote the use of their research. Researchers implementing activities to promote the use of their research are, however, appear not be assessing the effectiveness of these efforts. This is because we did not receive any abstract entries for the conference sub-theme on monitoring and evaluation of EIDM efforts.

Individual researchers can be influential in championing institutionalization of evidence use in government agencies, but…
The four seed grants implemented by individual researchers as part of the ELA initiative produced several outputs/outcomes that have potential to contribute to institutionalising EIDM in the government agencies where these were implemented. Some of the outputs include: establishment of three knowledge translation units in three government agencies in Nigeria (Federal Ministry of Environment, Lagos state Ministry of Environment  and Water Resources and Ministry of Science and Technology); creation of a community of practice comprising researchers and policymakers on Environmental Evidence Synthesis and Knowledge Translation to support decision-making; establishment of an open access evidence resources to support decision-making on environmental issues in Nigeria; Development and adoption of EIDM Guidelines by the Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA); Strengthened capacity of officials in the NNMDA in EIDM (identifying, accessing, evaluating, interpreting, synthesizing, and deploying research evidence in decision-making); and the development and approval of an Agenda for the establishment of a Centre for Evidence Synthesis at the Sokoine University in Tanzania to support government’s decision-making.

This is not to say the seed grant projects were implemented without any challenges. In fact, three of the four projects were greatly affected the COVID-19 pandemic because shortly after they started, the pandemic set in. The two projects in Nigeria were able to adapt to the pandemic conditions and managed to realise notable outcomes. On the other hand, the project in Uganda was greatly affected by the pandemic because the country put in place radical COVID-19 control measures that grounded the project for several months. In Tanzania, the project was not affected by the pandemic given the country’s policies on COVID-19.

The notable success realised by the individual researchers who designed and implemented the seed grant projects was underpinned by various factors. One of these factors was that the researchers were passionate about EIDM, and this was demonstrated through their drive and commitment to see their projects achieve the objectives they set out. Another factor is that the researchers were able to establish and sustain trust and meaningful relations with senior officials in their own universities and in government agencies in which they were implementing their interventions. In Tanzania, for instance, while the researcher’s plan was to start with a series of dialogues between academics and Ministry of Education, Science and Technology officials, the first dialogue turned into a huge national event on evidence with top leaders from the academia and government. This was because once she engaged the University’s leadership in the planning for the first dialogue, the University’s leadership recommended that the event should be high-level, targeting top policymakers since the topic of focus –i.e. EIDM– was of critical importance to the country.

Another factor that contributed to success was that the seed grant initiatives conducted awareness creation and training activities on EIDM at the start of the projects. The EIDM awareness and capacities developed through these initial activities produced interest and commitment from key leaders and stakeholders, that became very instrumental in the implementation of the initiatives. Finally, the ability of some of the projects to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, as noted earlier, was a critical driver of the success they recorded in notably difficult times.

Many government agencies in Africa are interested in efforts that support them to actualise EIDM
All the government agencies that were approached by the researchers welcomed the initiatives and provided the needed support and access to senior leaders as is needed with interventions that seek to institutionalise EIDM. In fact, as the seed grant projects wrapped up after about 12-15 months, the government agencies were asking for more.

What do all these mean for future Efforts to Institutionalise EIDM?
Given the low levels of appreciation of EIDM and the institutionalization of evidence use concept, future efforts should take a step-wise incremental approach, recognising the level at which many researchers in Africa are as far as EIDM is concerned. Efforts could therefore focus on enhancing researchers’ understanding of EIDM and developing researchers’ capacities so that they can effectively engage in EIDM efforts.

Initiatives targeting researchers in institutionalizing evidence use could focus on interventions that can be implemented by universities since researchers, particularly senior researchers, have a lot of influence in universities than in government agencies. For instance, researchers can work with the leadership of their universities to introduce knowledge translation courses in graduate programmes so that more and more researchers leave university with the necessary EIDM capacities. Universities could also institute reforms that introduce EIDM training and practice as part of the requirements for research career progression. This will incentivize more researchers to develop capacities in EIDM as well as be deliberate in engaging research users as this will now be a requirement for their career progression.

Our experiences in implementing the ELA initiative demonstrate the need for more and sustained investments in efforts that develop and expand researchers’ awareness, interest, capacity and leadership in championing evidence use. The interventions implemented under the ELA initiative provide some pointers to interventions that should be considered for future investments as they have a lot of potential to strengthen and expand researchers’ leadership in championing EIDM.

We acknowledge the funding support from the Hewlett Foundation that enabled the implementation of the Evidence Leaders in Africa initiative.


Rose Oronje, PhD, is Director, Public Policy and Communication at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP).