The researcher’s reward by Dr. John Mugo

This month, I celebrate my 20th anniversary as researcher. Looking back, the journey has been both rewarding and frustrating, in equal measure. Two questions have been most consistent, one difficult, the other annoying. What do you do? What for? (the politer version of, who cares?).

Let’s start with the difficult one. I have been asked this mostly in Africa’s rural areas, and at the airport. The one thing that the research career brought me is travel. I frequently travel to various places locally to collect data, assess children or just immerse myself to understand local realities. A few times, I am invited to schools and in meetings to make presentations, by people who think I should have anything useful to say. I also travel internationally to make presentations in conferences. In rural places, people have met me with excitement thinking I should be a medical doctor, or at least a vet. They are met with disappointment to learn that I am none of these, and the question is always – so, what do you do? At the international airport, the immigration department always had the question in various versions, the most common I recall is – What is your profession? (I hope it has changed now, one and a half years since I last travelled).

It has not been easy for me, explaining research to a person who thinks doctors should tend to sick people and animals. Only now have I checked The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary – the careful study of a subject, especially in order to discover new facts or information about it. I would say that while careful is an easy word, it is perhaps systematic that explains it better. But then you see where the problem is. I feel like the qualification as research just ushered me into a world where people just complicate the simple.

So, if you cannot communicate what you have established simply, how and who does your research help? Or asked differently, what is research for? Or even more candidly, who cares about what you find? After studying 100 researchers in Ghana, Tuurosong concluded that researchers mostly just talk to themselves.  He thinks that the target should also be the general public. In similar opinion, Gemma Sou thinks that research is overly complicated and even impenetrable. She considers it even an ethical issue, to make research accessible.

Looking back, answering these two questions was easier at the University. Everyone cared that you had conducted research and published, and actually publication was synonymous to dissemination. The better the journal you published in, the more you got recognized for your dissemination. Besides this, it was an easier root to just say – I teach at the University, and everyone would understand. The last 10 years have not been easy, conducting research away from the University.

Communicating research to the general public is probably the hardest thing I have experienced in my research career. I have learnt, that when you make it complicated, you get fewer questions. When you make it simple, everyone is interested and wants to question it. Communicating research simply exposes you, complicating it shields you. While communicating the Uwezo learning assessment findings, we started with ‘More than 70 percent of children in primary school are not learning at the expected level’. With this, fellow researchers had many questions, including what the expected level was. Then we ended with ‘One in ten children complete standard 8 without the ability to read at standard two level’. Everyone paid attention, and even people on the streets spoke about it.

The other hard thing, has been selling evidence to policy making. When you show up with new research findings at the Ministry, you feel everyone should pay attention. Indeed, evidence-based policy making has been the focus of many researchers and research funders over the last few years. I have learnt however, that policy-making is not just a question of ‘what does evidence say?’, but also two more questions, including the cost-benefit of what the evidence says, the existing capacities to drive the desired change, and the political goodwill to support what evidence says should be done.

My research journey has been rewarding when I find that someone has used the evidence to create change somewhere, either to inform the decisions they make, or improve what they do. The journey has been frustrating when I find that my research findings have been used for nothing else, other than just furthering an argument, or just making life more complicated.

Writer-Dr. John Mugo, is our Executive Director. For feedback, send an email to

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