Who are stakeholders in research?

The early engagement of ‘stakeholders’ in research is often presented as a simple way to ensure that research is aligned to the needs of research users and therefore impactful. However, who these stakeholders are and what their interests might be is not always obvious. In this post Robert Borst and Annette Boaz reflect on their research on stakeholder engagement as part of a larger European research project on tobacco control and present a methodology grounded in Science and Technology Studies (STS) to enable researchers to more effectively engage with stakeholders in research.   

There is a growing interest in the role of stakeholders in research. In particular, the potential for co-productive research approaches to increase research ‘impact’. Nonetheless, it is not always clear, who, or what, constitutes a stakeholder and what their involvement in research processes means – either for themselves, or for the utilisation of research findings. 

As part of a recent study, we had the opportunity to take an in depth look at stakeholder engagement in action. The project in question was a European research project to transfer a tobacco control return-on-investment tool (henceforth: tobacco control tool) from the UK to a number of other European countries. Researchers on this project explicitly aimed to engage stakeholders with the goal of increasing the project’s impact and we were allowed to track all their engagements during the project’s three year duration, giving us a unique insight into stakeholder engagement.

There are a number of critical bodies of thought that inform studies of research use. In our study we drew on the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), a field best known for investigating what it is that scientists do, how technologies affect societies, and how these societies also change technologies. Whilst a research project might not seem like a ‘technology’ in the traditional sense, it is possible to think about use and users of research in a similar way: what would make research usable, under what conditions, in what way, and by whom? The STS conceptualisation of non-human actors is also particularly useful, for instance in understanding the user roles played by the outputs of a research project. 

Hidden Assumptions

One of the key findings that emerged from our study was that to make research impactful, it was beneficial to bring perceptions about research use to the forefront. To do this we developed an ‘actor-scenario mapping’ approach, which enabled us to make explicit how different actors thought the results of research may be used in the future. The approach was built around three assumptions: 

researchers design their studies towards specific uses and users, 

potential users are not passive recipients of knowledge but actively decide how they will use the knowledge, 

‘successful’ knowledge translation depends to a large extent on how well-aligned the former two are.

Studies of scientific practice have shown that researchers’ assumptions about use are inscribed in the knowledge they produce. Ie. They are not just in the background, but have become part of the actual knowledge. An example in the case of the European research project was that its investigators thought of policymakers as their potential users. The tobacco control tool they developed was thus made with these ‘policymakers’ in mind – which was reflected in the tool’s graphical user interface, but also in the language used, its adaptability, and the (im)possibility to access the underlying mathematical models. 

Consequently, a major issue for the researchers was that their ideas about policymakers did not neatly align with what policymakers were and did in practice. As part of our actor-scenario mapping, interviews with researchers and other stakeholders were conducted to make such inscriptions, and sometimes tensions, visible. When the interviewees thought about users, they often thought of existing persons, organisations, or materials. Some of these ‘inscribed users’ didn’t agree with the role identified for them, or, in some cases even exist. 

From research use to research users

That research users are not passive actors waiting in the wings until it is time for them to play their part is hardly surprising. Research ‘use’ is a complex and ongoing process of negotiation and sometimes dispute. Making these interactions explicit by identifying potential users and asking them about their perspective on use early in the research place is highly beneficial, but  it remains challenging to identify and engage with potential users at the beginning of a research project. Our suggestion is to start conceptualisations of impact with active users in mind, or in other words: what constitutes a stakeholder in a specific situation and what role may such stakeholders play in terms of research use?

‘Impact’ by engagement on research use

In our study, we conducted a range of interviews with stakeholders. The interviews revolved around the same questions: in what way do the stakeholders think that the project changes the future world and what may be the role of knowledge in bringing about those changes. Stakeholders in one country spoke of the same persons and organisations that would be essential in the use of the tobacco return on investment tool. In another country, there was a lot of disagreement about potential users and stakeholders sometimes concluded that use in the current circumstances would be impossible. 

We constructed lists, descriptions, and simple visual representations to present the different roles and responsibilities that the stakeholders put forward. Production of these ‘maps’ was not a goal in itself. Instead, they were used to compare the scenarios of the different stakeholders. By mapping the different scenarios, and particularly through their comparison, we gained unique insights into potential users of the results from the European tobacco control project. Such information can show researchers that their envisaged use may not necessarily fit with the ideas of potential users. It also foregrounds the elements of context that enable or constrain the potential research use and offers a more reflexive way of thinking about and, more importantly, doing research impact. In concrete terms, this ultimately requires research projects to specifically dedicate time, resources, and effort to making explicit not only their stakeholders, but also how such stakeholders envision the translation of their research findings into action.

Science and Technology Studies – specifically the actor-scenario approach – offers a unique understanding of research impact. From this perspective, the impact of research is not a direct outcome of stakeholder engagement and should not be seen as synonym of research use. Rather, it is an ongoing process of constructive interaction and engagement between the different stakeholders involved in knowledge production and utilisation.  We believe that the actor-scenario approach may help to better understand this process and to learn from it. As with all theories and methods though, its value is proven through its application in practice. 

How useful do you think the actor-scenario approach may be in your work?

This post draws on the authors co-authored paper, Envisioning and shaping translation of knowledge into action: A comparative case-study of stakeholder engagement in the development of a European tobacco control tool, published in Health Policy. And is also published on the website of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

More information

Robert Borst is a PhD candidate in governance for global health at Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam. He wants to understand and arrange collaborative arrangements between knowledge production and utilisation. As such, he is currently involved in a project on knowledge translation platforms. These platforms seek to improve translation of knowledge into action.

Annette Boaz is Professor of Health Care Research at the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at St George’s University of London and Kingston University London. She is interested in research use, implementation and improvement, and stakeholder engagement. Together with others, she wrote the book ‘What Works Now’ about the interactions between policy, practice, and research.