Research that matters

You’d be hard pressed to find a researcher who doesn’t want to spark change. But intending to make change and actually doing it are two different things, says Dr. Brian Belcher, Ashoka Research Chair in Research Effectiveness and professor in Royal Roads University’s College of Interdisciplinary Studies

“Many researchers don’t know how to effectively link their research to change processes,” Belcher says. “There’s still this model that ‘it’s my job as a researcher to produce peer-reviewed academic journals and it’s someone else’s job to read those and put them to work.’”

Appointed to a four-year term as the university’s Ashoka Research Chair in 2019, Belcher’s work focuses on research as a tool for changemaking.

The inaugural position builds on Belcher’s work on evaluating and improving research impact and research effectiveness in his previous role as Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Sustainability Research Effectiveness. At the conclusion of his Canada Research Chair, the Ashoka Foundation and Royal Roads University created the new chair in recognition of the vital importance of applying research to solve real world problems.

“Prof. Belcher’s research to conceptualize, assess and ultimately improve the way research contributes to change is critically important to the changemaking mandate of Royal Roads,” says Royal Roads University President Philip Steenkamp. “The Ashoka Research Chair enables Prof. Belcher to continue the innovative work begun under his Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and provides an excellent platform to share that research while building our collaboration with Ashoka Canada.”

Belcher says valuable research doesn’t just advance what we know. It fundamentally changes how things are done.

“You can send a research paper to a thousand different people and it might not make a bit of difference if the research question is not be relevant to them, if it doesn’t reach the right audience, or if they don’t trust it,” he says.

While Belcher says many researchers want to have impact, they often fall short because they don’t have the tools to understand and measure what works. It’s a mistake to think that by simply producing a new knowledge or technology, change will follow, Belcher says.

“Dr. Belcher’s exploration of the role of research as a valuable tool for social change is helping us build bridges across diverse stakeholder groups and accelerate the development of solutions to complex challenges, says Barbara Steele, executive director of Ashoka Canada. “His voice and leadership bring much needed rigour to the messy work of social change.”

His Sustainability Research Effectiveness Program (SRE) has developed a conceptual framework, tools, and methods for assessing the quality and effectiveness of change-oriented research. He and his team are applying these tools to analyze and compare a series of completed research projects to learn what works and what does not work in specific contexts. The program aims to generate lessons for researchers, research managers, research funders, and society more broadly, with some notable successes. For example, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) each consulted with Prof. Belcher as they sought to increase the relevance and the effectiveness of research they fund. NSERC’s Partnership Program and PICS Opportunity Projects Program have both revised their project guidelines and evaluation criteria based on SRE input. The Consultative Group on Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a large international research consortium, drew heavily on Belcher’s work in designing its new Quality of Research for Development Framework. And the SRE outcome evaluation method is being used in a new large-scale evaluation of the global research of the Forests, Trees and Agroforestry Research Program.

As part of the overall set of case studies, Belcher and his team are conducting outcome evaluations on a series of completed Royal Roads masters and doctoral research projects to assess whether and how they have contributed to change. Early results indicate that the engaged, solution-oriented approach applied by many Royal Roads graduate students takes advantage of multiple impact pathways, with a range of positive benefits from new knowledge and from the process of doing the research. The work suggests improvements to the way student research is designed and implemented to be more effective. 

“Researchers often miss or underestimate the importance of the social processes that are needed for research-based knowledge to be valuable and used,” he says. “When the Ashoka Research Chair opportunity came up, that’s what I thought was important—to build tools that would help us understand social innovation and improve the way research contributes.”