Caroline Fiennes: Introducing the magic impact fairy who ensures research changes something

It takes more than magic to translate research into action and make an impact, writes our columnist

Caroline Fiennes
Caroline Fiennes

I want to introduce you to someone: the Magic Impact Fairy. Her job is to take all the research that people do and the reports they write, and ensure it all actually changes something - that the conclusions are read and heeded by the people they're intended to influence. She's busy.

Many charities, foundations, think tanks, academics and people in government rely on her. Without her, their theory of change is pretty much just to create and distribute a document. Sometimes we don't even get that far: a friend who worked for a human rights charity recounts how its researchers once created an important report, but never even planned to distribute it; the office was awash with unopened boxes of copies.

Organisations often don't seem to think about getting their research used, so it's lucky the Magic Impact Fairy can spirit the insights to where they're needed, and incentivise and empower the key people to act.

Some evil forces are trying to make the Magic Impact Fairy redundant. For example, Innovations for Poverty Action, a US-based NGO which researches fixes to "poverty problems", has an ABC model. First (A), it finds out what policymakers and practitioners want to know. Then (B) it does research into those questions, and finally (C) it provides support for implementing the answers. It finds that the challenges at stage C are mainly practical: policymakers might like the idea of dishing out anti-malarial bednets, but they then need to know how many nets fit into one box and how many boxes fit onto a truck. Then there's the question of how long the insect-repelling chemical lasts.

The Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande maintains that two main problems impede good outcomes in many disciplines. First, problems of incompetence, where we don't know what to do. The research that we all do is meant to solve those. Then come problems of ineptitude, wherein we know what to do but don't do it. The latter is partly about changing behaviour, which is brutally tough: even getting doctors to wash their hands is famously hard. As the behavioural economist Richard Thaler says: "The daunting realisation is that we don't know what the hell we're doing in most fields of life, especially the ones that involve people." Maybe fairies are more effective than economists.

The researchers Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have gone further and identified three problems in research uptake: ignorance, incentive and inertia. Notice that these problems aren't solved by the classic solutions of holding events to launch documents, nor policy briefs (glossary summaries). Those things address ignorance. More common is that the research discusses a problem the audience doesn't think it has, or that it requires action its readers are not empowered to take.

That's why the Education Endowment Foundation talks not about merely disseminating, but about mobilising. And those problems have spawned a whole discipline called Implementation Science. Southampton University has a centre dedicated to it, and Oxford University runs courses on it.

Now, I'll tell you a secret about the Magic Impact Fairy. It's that you have to believe in her: as with Tinkerbell, only if you really believe can the magic really work.

Caroline Fiennes is director of Giving Evidence and author of It Ain't What You Give

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