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'Boundary organisations' offer a space away from politics for scientists to engage government officials with their research, says Scott Drimie.

The process of developing evidence-based policy is complex, and it is rare for policymakers to pick up research recommendations automatically.

Many decisions are poorly informed by research-based evidence. Policymakers tend to be influenced by their own values, experience and judgement, lobbyists and pressure groups, as well as pragmatism.

So how can the scientific community ensure that research finds its way into policy and practice? 'Boundary organisations' — organisations that cross the boundary between research and politics — can be part of the answer.

They can help practitioners to consider how blurring the boundaries between science and politics — rather than maintaining their separation, which is often advocated and practised — can lead to more productive decision-making.

Lessons learned from the Regional Network on AIDS, Livelihoods and Food Security (RENEWAL) in South Africa suggest that scientists who engage policymakers as 'policy entrepreneurs', within the 'blurred space' provided by a boundary organisation, can help promote evidence-based policy.

Channel for HIV/AIDS evidence

RENEWAL, set up by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Health Economics and AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, has a specific aim: to promote evidence-based and socially beneficial policies and programmes related to HIV and food security.

It has achieved this by building the confidence and capacity of professionals in both the research and public sectors. This was done through focused training and networking that helped people make changes in their work.

And it was not 'networking' in the usual sense: the project adopted a deliberate strategy of identifying stakeholders and nurturing a relationship of mutual trust to ultimately influence policy.

RENEWAL engaged government officials on research intended to inform policies on population vulnerability to food insecurity and HIV/AIDS by establishing a National Advisory Panel (NAP) comprising government officials, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and academics interested in this type of research.

NAP provided a channel through which scientific information could be reviewed and spread from researchers to relevant officials and decision-making groups.

It was conceived as a 'light' structure — with few members and no more than a loose affiliation of agencies that would engage in these issues in a spirit of finding common ground. This was to avoid overburdening hard-pressed officials and to accommodate political sensitivities associated with HIV/AIDS, poverty and nutrition.

'Safe space' for engagement

From early 2000, there was HIV/AIDS denialism at the highest level of the South African government, including former president Thabo Mbeki. RENEWAL focused instead on supporting government officials who were interested in evidence to inform HIV/AIDS programmes.

These officials were often constrained by the peculiar politics of HIV/AIDS, which prevented open dialogue within the government. Labyrinthine departmental politics also stymied planned meetings between officials and RENEWAL's network of researchers.

A key lesson is that RENEWAL, as a boundary organisation, has provided a 'safe space' for mid-level civil servants, researchers and academics to engage in the issues — and ultimately to build capacity to shift policy when it became feasible.

NAP meetings were held twice a year to review HIV/AIDS research, with smaller meetings held more regularly to strengthen relationships. Larger capacity building workshops and courses supported this process, drawing in expertise from across the region.

Another key lesson is recognising that the position of a researcher is frequently one without power to make material change. Evidence alone is insufficient to make a difference.

Other agencies, for instance advocacy or civil society organisations, have that capacity. Ironically, the value of research and the credibility of the researcher lie in their powerlessness — their perceived objectivity and neutrality.

Promoting balanced views

So what else can be learnt from this experience? RENEWAL has not claimed to have directly shifted policy. Rather, it has played a low-key, background role in contributing to broader processes of policy change.

Informing the social protection framework proposed by the South African National AIDS Council is one example. Another was a special committee to advocate for HIV issues to be integrated into land reform strategy.

These involved building the evidence base available to policymakers; strengthening the capacity of certain individuals and groups to use that evidence, and consolidating relationships that could drive a policy agenda; and providing a source of support for decision makers at various levels.

Acting as a boundary organisation involves adopting an attitude of becoming a 'policy entrepreneur' — an influential entity with a long-term view on promoting research. There is a risk that this may be seen as pushing undue influence and undermining good local governance, particularly through individuals.

But the discussions enabled by RENEWAL show that diverse perspectives were heard and that a careful balance was maintained. Boundary organisations can provide a vehicle to consider the results of research, strengthen relationships within and between sectors, and, hopefully, contribute to the long-term strengthening of institutions.

Groups hoping to influence policymaking should use boundary organisations — they can help scientists understand how to engage with complex processes through networks and alliances, and so promote evidence-based decisions.

Scott Drimie is extraordinary associate professor at the Department of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He was the regional coordinator for RENEWAL.