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How to make modern slavery research more impactful

Prof Alex Balch blog on three things we learned from our event.

Published: 1st December 2021

The Modern Slavery PEC exists to transform the effectiveness of laws and policies on modern slavery and the practical impact of research on modern slavery we fund is central to our strategy. In her own strategy, the UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, outlined her intention to encourage research efforts to improve the evidence base on modern slavery and to bridge the gap between research, policy and practice.

On 24 November 2021, together we hosted an event, entitled Working collaboratively to maximise the impact of modern slavery research, to discuss the obstacles standing in the way of achieving this impact and the best practical ways to overcome them. Here are three key lessons we took away from the event.

1. There is a desire from all sides to bring evidence and policy closer together

There was a welcome consensus of the need for the evidence-policy relationship to improve, and many of the panellists reported positive examples where new research is reaching policymakers (it was good to hear examples of the Modern Slavery PEC playing a role in this). However, the discussion also revealed the many challenges in producing the right kinds of evidence at the right time to maximise influence on policy decisions. At the Modern Slavery PEC we have learned a lot about why research has impact, but also how large the task is to control all the factors that need to be aligned to ensure this happens, making sure research addresses a policymakers’ evidence need, and is timely, relevant, trustworthy and accessible.

The work on impact of research by Dr Juliana Semione from the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, which was commissioned by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and funded by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research (PaCCS), highlighted a series of different barriers that prevent the effective transmission of knowledge from research to policy. During the discussion that followed her presentation, panellists also drew on other metaphors, particularly around market-based understanding of a supply and demand for evidence.

The conversation and Q&A with the audience covered some very practical issues. For example, issues that limit the speed with which researchers can produce evidence (e.g. funding timescales, the need for ethical approval) and the gap that this creates with the policy process because of the much shorter timescales, often governed by political considerations. In addition to this, the importance of researchers having access to policymakers, and effectively translating their research to generate usable recommendations, were other areas of agreement from the panel.

2. Include the perspectives of people you want to influence from the start

The event featured a panel of research users including a business perspective (Eric Anderson, previously of BT), civil society (Debbie Ariyo, Chief Executive of AFRUCA and Chair of BME Anti-Slavery Network BASNET), and policymakers from the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Unit and the Cabinet Office Evaluation Taskforce. All put an emphasis on the benefits of researchers working with the decisionmakers they are trying to influence from the start, while maintaining their independence.

If we want to make the research relevant for decisionmakers, it is good to include them from the beginning, so their needs can influence the design and implementation of research. This in turn can improve the uptake of evidence by making the focus of the research connect with policymakers' needs, and the recommendations specific and responsive to them. The event was chaired by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who has set out the need to bridge this gap between research, policy and practice. It was also good to see the contribution from Abi, Project Officer at the IASC Office, who presented the research she is conducting during her time at IASC Office about mental health support for survivors.

There was also a plea for a more constructive approach to working with the business community in this area. Businesses appreciate constructive evidence on very practical ways to inform action on modern slavery and point to the most effective ways to change how they operate, rather than research that simply criticizes them for what they are not doing.

3. Collaboration is central

Debbie Ariyo (AFRUCA/BASNET) highlighted the importance of community engagement and involvement of civil society in research. This is essential if the aspiration is to improve the lives of those people and communities who are more likely to be affected by modern slavery.

This connected with a wider point on which all speakers were unequivocal: a collaborative approach is key to producing evidence that is relevant and impactful. It is also through collaboration that research can better speak to the urgent questions where evidence is needed.

The challenge here is to prioritise the perspectives and support the leadership of those with lived experience and to include diverse groups and stakeholders in the creation of evidence, and for that evidence to be delivered to policymakers at the right time. The example of the Modern Slavery PEC project on Malaysian rubber gloves supply chains (led by Prof Alex Hughes from Newcastle University) illustrated just this combination of timing and collaboration. It underlined the value of research that is led by a wide team from different backgrounds and which includes different perspectives, but which also meet the needs of policymakers seeking high quality evidence guidance on a topic - procurement of PPE - which is currently of high priority to the government.

We will work on implementing the suggestions and points raised at the event in practice, and we’ll continue to put the policy impact of research on modern slavery at the heart of all our work.

Watch the recording from the event