Strengthening the Impact of Research on UN Policy

UN Reform | October 12, 2016 |

Photo by Ioan Nicolau.
Photo by Ioan Nicolau.

The United Nations faces a range of daunting challenges in the coming decades, including the implementation and monitoring of the ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, responding to an increase in civil wars, adapting to the changing nature of armed violence, and addressing the challenges of rising migration, as well as the impacts of demographic trends and climate change. Evidence-based research can inform policymakers to more effectively respond to these challenges. However, even as the demand for such research from UN entities is growing, its uptake by the UN into its policies often faces considerable obstacles.

In an effort to bridge this gap, the United Nations University and the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies held a two-day roundtable event in April 2016, titled ‘Strengthening the UN’s Research Uptake’. Participants included senior representatives from around 40 UN research and policy units and from more than 50 leading research organizations from around the world, including a strong representation from think tanks from developing countries. The aim was to examine ways in which UN-oriented research entities could more effectively inform major UN policy processes in peace and security, development, human rights, and humanitarian action.

The conference explored major knowledge gaps and research needs within the UN, and discussed ways to overcome the barriers to research uptake by the UN. As detailed in the meeting report, conference, participants pointed to numerous examples of productive engagement between the UN and research communities, identifying lessons and good practices, including:

  • To ensure policy-relevance and research uptake, researchers will need to closely engage with UN policy-makers throughout the research cycle, starting at the research design phase;
  • Both groups should proactively seek out partnerships for collaboration, which would help ensure that research is embedded in policy, and that policy becomes an integral component of research programmes;
  • The establishment of partnerships often depends on institutional gateways into the UN system that can be difficult to establish for researchers, especially those based in the global south;
  • The most important “docking stations” for the academic community to establish direct partnerships with the UN are policy units of different UN entities. In recent years, many UN policy units have developed innovative ways of engaging the world of research, with scope for these units to learn from each other’s models of engagement;
  • These models of engagement range from the establishment of academic advisory councils, academic networks, or expert stand-by teams composed of academics, to the launching of annual flagship reports drawing heavily on academic input;
  • UN staff need to be given greater incentives to develop partnerships with the research community, which calls for a clear message from senior leadership that such collaboration is to be encouraged. The UN would also benefit from the expansion of its sabbatical leave programme and human resources reforms that would make it easier for staff to leave the UN for some time to work at research institutions;
  • UN policy entities were encouraged to develop modalities that would allow them to communicate their policy research needs to the wider academic community;
  • Effective dissemination approaches combine efforts to reach a broader audience through publication in widely-read policy journals or the op-ed pages of major newspapers and the smart use of social media, with targeted outreach directed towards key policy-makers and policy entrepreneurs;
  • The UN will need to invest greater efforts to connect more effectively with policy researchers in the developing world, calling for active outreach to and greater donor support for think tanks in the global south, as well as the establishment of short-term fellowship opportunities for southern researchers within UN policy units.

UNU and the Graduate Institute will continue engagement with UN entities and research organizations to explore how some of these recommendations could be implemented and foster continued dialogue and encourage learning across different research domains.