March 20, 2019

The Tobacconomics Approach to Think Tank Capacity Building: Our Research Process

If you are a new reader to this series, we have already released the first two blogs: the ‘what’ and ‘why’, and the ‘who’, ‘where’, and ‘how’ on our approach to think tank capacity building. We discussed our reasoning for capacity building in the first place, what capacities we sought to build, and our scoping process in finding the think tank partners we work with today on the project, “Accelerating Progress on Tobacco Taxes in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” In this blog, we will be discussing our research process: how we worked with partners and sought input from policy makers and advocates to identify evidence gaps, selected research topics, assessed data availability and training needs, and ensured quality research and timely delivery—all with the goal of increasing evidence-based policymaking on tobacco taxation.

Step One—Identifying Evidence Gaps

 After we identified the countries and regions where we would work, we wanted to understand which areas of research were needed by the local policy makers and civil society to advocate for tobacco tax increases and reforms. Since the think tank partners we would eventually be working with would be new in the field, we also wanted to provide a backdrop to help them gain knowledge on what local evidence already existed. While scoping for partners, each economist on our team was also developing a research matrix to identify recent research on the economics of tobacco control, and significant evidence gaps. In addition to desk research, the economists consulted tobacco control experts and advocates as well as government institutions to understand the overall research needs in each country and region.

Step Two—Selecting Research Topics

Once the scoping process was complete and partnerships were established, we worked with our new partners to select specific research topics and methods through a consultative process. The research matrices, along with the Tobacconomics “Core Competencies” approach guided the discussion, but our partners also weighed in based on their areas of capacity and interest. Sometimes the research proposed was overly broad, and we needed to narrow the focus of the research to one discrete area. For example, understanding consumer behavioral responses to tax increases through the estimation of demand elasticity of tobacco products was a manageable first step in countries where this evidence had not been recently produced. During the research selection process, we also kept in mind that this would (hopefully) not be a one-off project. Instead, we viewed it as the first step in a longer-term partnership.

Step Three—Assessing Data Availability & Training Needs

We discovered very quickly that in many countries, accessing data would be a big challenge. But we also knew that without quality data, quality research would not be possible. Many of our partners faced significant challenges accessing government data. Some could only access government data by traveling to government offices and using a ‘safe room’ to perform analysis for a limited amount of time. A few of our groups could not access the data they needed at all, and instead had to use other available data to perform analysis through different methods than initially proposed. These challenges created delays in the grant timeline, and we learned to assess these data challenges at the outset while establishing the Scope of Work.

We also learned that training and capacity building assessments needed to be conducted at the outset to provide sufficient time for our team to allocate resources and for the think tanks to absorb and apply the knowledge gained toward the research. Given that most of our think tank partners had never worked in the economics of tobacco control, close monitoring and a steady stream of technical assistance was required, either through in-person training, interactive workshops, periodic research meetings of multiple think tanks in the same region, and regular calls and emails. Thus, having a Tobacconomics staff economist as the primary contact for each think tank has been essential to ensuring that our partners have access to technical assistance every step of the way. We also provide in-person training workshops by outside consultants when necessary; however, the economists on our team provide technical guidance on a regular basis.

The Tobacconomics team also produces toolkits on foundational areas of economic analysis—all tied to our Core Competencies. The first toolkit, Using Household Expenditure Surveys for Research in the Economics of Tobacco Control, was just released this week. We also hosted a webinar on Wednesday, March 20th to provide an overview and field questions.

Step Four—Ensuring Quality Research and Timely Delivery

The importance of research quality primarily lies in the fact that the main target audience on tobacco taxation is the ministry of finance. Given that our think tank partners are new entrants to tobacco control field, and ministries of finance can be very skeptical of economic policy outputs from public health groups, we found it prudent to take the time needed to produce a quality research product first before engaging in dissemination. We have been very careful to make sure that before results are disseminated, they are robust, and in many cases have already benefitted from feedback from ministries of finance. Overly ambitious research plans without demonstration of previous robust results on tax research run the risk of failure to deliver.

In developing the research plan, we’ve also learned that it’s important to take into account that quality research takes time. As most think tanks we worked with had little to no prior experience in economics of tobacco control, a one-year plan of work provided enough time for the think tank to master one fundamental building block of research in the economics of tobacco taxation (for example, estimating demand for tobacco products). Because this was a new area of analysis for most of the think tanks we worked with, there was a steep learning curve, which required a significant upfront time investment from them.

Their hard work has resulted in excellent research! Stay tuned for the fourth blog in the series next week, where we will be sharing the research of our think tank partners and the way ahead.

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