CSAG, like many climate research units, is experiencing an ever-growing demand for “climate services”. In this context, I would define climate services as a mechanism for disseminating the results of research to the wider audience be it through capacity building/training, developing learning resources, developing online data sharing resources or through tailored consultancy work. It is the last aspect – climate consultancy – that has grown exponentially in the last few years. I put this down to climate change rising steadily up the political agenda with a directly proportional link to demand for climate information and the expertise to robustly interpret that information.
The decision for CSAG to start engaging with consultancy work did not come from a financial perspective but more out of recognition that we hold the key to precious resources and information that are unique within Africa. In the interests of robust climate change decision-making, it was necessary for us to meet the growing demand and unlock the door to the information we held. Through consulting work, we are now making this expertise widely available. It sounds simple doesn’t it? Everyone’s a winner? Supply and demand?…… But it’s not simple at all.
Consulting and research are not compatible activities. They work on two very different time scales. Research is about making steady and defensible progress in a cutting edge environment, testing results, retesting results and working through a tried and tested peer review process before making those results available for wider scrutiny. Consultancy, on the other hand, works on a very different premise. Results are required NOW (preferably yesterday), for application NOW, and demands are placed on us to produce cutting edge results in the shortest possible timeframe. This results in a shortcutting of the traditional research process in order to keep up with meeting the thirst for information. We are finding ourselves pushed and pulled to get information “out the door” before it has been thoroughly tested for intellectual integrity. Although we endeavour to make all these caveats explicit in all the work we do, as a reputable research unit, this obviously makes us very uncomfortable. But is there really a way around this problem? We either isolate ourselves to undertake our research while, in turn, hindering the application and utility of the information that we generate or we engage in the consultancy arena, unlock the expertise that we hold, and confront the challenges we are currently facing.
In the interests of facilitating the robust application of climate change research, we have chosen the latter. So, we are now attracting a significant portion of consulting work – based on our reputation as a world-class research unit. But, in order to remain a world-class research unit, we need to focus on just that – defensible research. Yet more and more of our attention is being drawn into the consultancy as it appears to come across as the more immediate and pressing issue. So how do we blend the two? How do we remain a defensible research unit that continues to produce cutting edge science while also diverting significant focus and resources to meeting the user demand for tailored climate expertise? Or are these just the hazards of working on a research topic that has become widely applicable in a practical context?