Maura Adshead: Nearly half the world’s population eat food cooked indoors on stoves fuelled by wood, coal or animal dung. The World Health Organization estimates that solid-fuel stoves contribute to about 4.3 million deaths a year. In addition to tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer, solid fuel stoves also contribute to air pollution and climate change. It estimated that 40 per cent of India’s air pollution comes from domestic fuel burning.
For decades, researchers, charities and NGOs have tried to find ways to persuade people who use these stoves to switch to more efficient cooking methods. Yet in 2015, a World Bank Report noted that three decades of efforts to promote modern fuels and improved biomass stoves had met with limited and sporadic success.
Why? Because the researchers who designed more efficient cooking stoves never actually used them, or spent any time talking to the women who did. If they had, they would have found out that the feeder hole was too small, making it hard to cook foods that required a longer cooking time on an even temperature. They would have understood that the fan designed to make the stove more efficient made the cooking times too fast for some users and blew out soot for others; and that the pots that went with the stoves were not big enough to feed a large family.
In the end, although the initial take up of new stoves was high, their use quickly declined and they failed to make the desired changes to family health and air pollution.
What happens when researchers fail to engage with affected people
This example illustrates what happens when researchers fail to engage with the people directly concerned with the outcomes from their research. But you don’t need to go as far as India to find similar examples. If you’ve ever struggled taking apart any kind of kitchen appliance, you might very quickly conclude that the people who design them don’t generally wash them.
In Ireland many researchers from all kinds of backgrounds have responded to this common problematic, coming up with up a variety of techniques for consultation. All of these are detailed in a new report on Engaged Research in Ireland, due to be formally launched Friday January 13th 2017, at the Mansion House, Dublin.
With over 80 case studies of Irish ‘engaged research’ submitted for the report and 300 plus consultations with researchers, funders and ‘end users’ in civil society organizations, the report maps out the kinds of engaged research being carried out in Ireland and the increasing consensus about the best ways to support and promote it.
The diverse list of engaged methodologies and approaches identified by the report provide evidence of Irish engaged research in Social Sciences, Humanities, Arts, Business, Health and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and demonstrates three important issues which have strong policy implications:
• first, the multiplicity of approaches and practices has contributed to confusion as to what constitutes engaged research;
• second, this has led many to underestimate the true extent of engagement in contemporary research in Ireland;
• and third, this lack of clarity on both practice and prevalence has stymied the potential for a great deal of trans-disciplinary and cross-sectoral collaboration.
Engagement research and collaborative engagement
‘Engaged Research’ is the umbrella term used in the report to describe a wide range of rigorous research approaches and methodologies that share a common interest in collaborative engagement with the community and aim to improve, understand or investigate an issue of public interest or concern, including societal challenges. Following the old maxim ‘nothing about us without us’, ‘engaged research’ is advanced with community partners rather than for them.
In order to promote engaged research, the report also provides a trans-disciplinary framework for engaged research, detailing all stages of a typical research project alongside the possible opportunities for engagement activities at each stage.
The intention is not that Irish researchers will carry out all possible kinds of engagement in a single project, but that they will be more aware of the ways and means by which engagement may take place throughout the research process, including ways to co-design the intended outcomes and impacts for research with those stakeholders who will be most affected by it.
The cliché of the ‘Smart Economy’ is a short-hand acknowledgement that governments and policy makers now assume that research and innovation drive economies forward. Government strategies like the National Science and Innovation Strategy and the Hunt Report point to the value of harnessing third level research for economic and social prosperity – a view that is reflected in EU funding priorities.
The current EU research funding programme Horizon 2020 will spend just under €30 billion on research that “addresses societal challenges”. It is to be hoped that better engagement between researchers and all of those with a stake in their research gives better value to public investment and research outcomes more clearly directed towards the public good.
Professor Maura Adshead, is Senior lecturer in Politics and Public Administration, Department of Politics and Public Administration University of Limerick
Engaged Research. Society and Higher Education addressing Grand Societal Challenges Together, Dublin: Campus Engage
Hanna, R., Duflo, E. and Greenstone, M. ‘Up in smoke: the influence of household behavior on the long-run impact of improved cooking stoves’, MIT Department of Economics Working Paper, No. 12-10
Stacey, Kiran, ‘India: cooking up a recipe for clean air’, Financial Times, 21 December 2016
The World Bank, July 2015 ‘Clean and Improved Cooking in sub-Saharan Africa’