Erika Feller is currently a Vice-Chancellors Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government. Erika’s experience in moving from the position of Assistant Commissioner for Protection at the UNHCR into a university environment gives her a unique understanding of the use and demands for research in a very applied field, as well as a glimpse of what drives university research. So of course we asked her to discuss all of this over lunch with the K* Network.
Erika introduced us to her work at the UNHCR and discussed the various attempts that had been made to integrate more closely work by researchers with the needs of the UNHCR. The push for better evidence on which to base decisions was driven and supported by Antonio Guterres, now Secretary General of the UN. The most successful attempts to integrate research and research users were around the implementation of program monitoring and evaluation, perhaps because it naturally opens up a feedback loop for program improvements that are implementable and fully contextualized.
Erika noted as well that in her experience, university based researchers were reluctant to rely on grey literature type documents as sources of reliable/valid information. Given the huge number of reports that are produced by the UN (and all NGOs in my experience) that are based in rigorous research methods, this creates an unfortunate gap in what is considered valid for academic research purposes and contributes to a considerable amount of repetition of similar research across organisations.
Erika is still keen to see researchers working with end users and developing research that has direct applicability to protections for refugees and asylum seekers. To that end, Erika has been collaborating with the Melbourne Law School in developing a Centre of Excellence in Statelessness. The Centre aims to move academic research in this arena from a very theoretical base to a more action oriented space with a remit to inform policy and practise. In conjunction with the UNHCR and other powerful allies, the potential for this research to have significant positive impacts on the treatment and protection of stateless peoples is a promising development.
Of course Erika’s experiences launched a robust discussion including the role of leadership and culture in driving research use in organisations. This raised questions about the willingness of leaders to accept advice from “outside the circle” and the place of programs like ‘thinkers in residence’ and ‘government readers’ and ‘knowledge brokers’ for creating positions where researchers can be insiders in both practitioner and research circles. Erika pointed us to research by UNSW in conjunction with UNHCR that has led to the development of a toolkit this is now being applied globally to identify women at risk in refugee situations. This research, driven by the end user has had ready acceptance within the practitioner community and is making a difference to the lives of vulnerable women. For research users like UNHCR, having more research in the social sciences that prioritizes substantive improvements to human well-being as an outcome, would be a welcome thing.