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Are policy-makers from Mars and researchers from Venus?

“Everyone has a critical role to play in improving the health of the world’s women and children.” This was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call to action at the end of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health that was launched last September at the MDG Summit in New York.

Earlier this week I attended a two-day multi-disciplinary seminar organised by the University of Aberdeen and the University of Southampton to look specifically at the role of the academic and research community in meeting the Millennium Development Goals that relate to child and maternal health. One of the specific requests made to academic and research institutions by the Secretary-General is to deliver a prioritised and coordinated research agenda that sets out the key pieces of research needed to ensure that MDGs 4 and 5 are delivered by the 2015 deadline.

I was invited to represent Save the Children at this meeting to provide a policy-makers’ – and child survival – perspective on the major knowledge gaps that prevent us from reducing maternal, newborn and child mortality. Not having a research background myself, I was apprehensive about participating in a meeting full of clever academics. But it soon became clear why the views of organisations like Save the Children were being requested.

Save the Children’s work relies heavily on research (and we increasingly produce and commission research ourselves). Our work to reduce child deaths is grounded in rigorous evidence of what kinds of interventions are the most effective at saving lives and the most appropriate ways to deliver them in different parts of the world. Similarly, our policy and advocacy work uses research findings to inform our messages to decision-makers. It’s easy to take for granted that the statistics we use here on a daily basis – such as ‘8 million children die each year from preventable causes’ – are based on years of painstaking research!

On the second day of the meeting, I participated in a panel discussion titled ‘Researchers are from Venus, Policy-makers from Mars’ along representatives from the UK Department for International Development, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the World Health Organization and the White Ribbon Alliance.

While there was consensus about the need for more high-quality research, my fellow panellists and I challenged researchers to be more action-oriented when developing proposals. By this we meant that researchers should be more aware of how their work could be used to inform future policy-making and that they should be more confident about making policy recommendations, based on the findings of their work. Often other organisations are required to take a piece of research and determine what the policy implications might be. It was argued that the original authors would often be in a better situation to do this since they have all of the additional contextual knowledge.

We also challenged the researchers to think of different ways of disseminating their findings beyond publication in reputable journals. By using the media and building partnerships with NGOs, for example, researchers can help to build awareness of best practice among the communities who will ultimately benefit. In turn, these communities will be more empowered to demand better services from their governments and hold them to account.

As policy-makers, we argued that we need research to be timely and more responsive to political priorities. The level of high-level attention on maternal, newborn and child health at the moment is unprecedented but will inevitably be replaced by a new hot topic. Dr Tore Godal. Special Adviser to the Prime Minister of Norway was quoted in saying that “policy-makers work more quickly than evidence”. While we need to take advantage of the political will behind maternal and child health, we were warned that this cannot be at the expense of good-quality research, which can take years to validate.

Another area of agreement between the two camps was that we generally know what works to save mothers’ and children’s lives and that research needs to focus on how to scale up access to interventions, particularly to those in greatest need. This was the case, I argued with reducing child mortality. We know that health workers are essential for delivering services. But how do we ensure that there are sufficient health workers who are adequately trained and supported within reach of every vulnerable child? Similarly, we know that it is the poorest children within a country, and particularly the rural poor, who are least likely to access healthcare. But more information is needed on how to successfully reach them and reduce inequity. I also talked about malnutrition and user fees as known causes of death, with more evidence needed on how to address them.

As the seminar came to a close, I concluded that policy-makers and researchers are not from different planets. We may have different starting points and methods of working. But we are working towards a common objective of saving lives and reducing inequity. As Ban Ki-Moon said, we all have a role to play in achieving the objectives of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health. The task is for us to collaborate more closely and to find more effective ways of sharing information.

As we move forward, international networks such as the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (of which Save the Children is a member) will have a key role to play in facilitating knowledge exchanges within and between constituencies. A better understanding of what research is already out there and how it can be best used to inform policy-making will bring us more quickly towards our end goal of ending needless child deaths.

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