From academic conference to the public – How to make an impact with your research

One of the main issues faced by researchers and policy wonks is their inability to effectively reach out to the people they wish to affect, present them their argument – backed by data – and convince them to take a chance with change. Ibrahim Kholilul Rohman is that rare researcher with a targeted audience of both average citizens and influencers and policy makers in his home-country, Indonesia. He already has several by-lines in the highly regarded Jakarta Post under his belt, in both Bahasa and English. He has successfully turned debates around with his evidence-based writing, and has a pocket full of tips to offer researchers young and old.

Rohman has found making one’s findings public on a larger scale, with good packaging, is crucial for making an impact in the real world. Building strong peer networks, is another key. He shares the experience of when Alison Gillwald, head of Research ICT Africa, came to his aid when he was writing his first op-ed for the Jakarta Post. The piece exposed the pricing basket hoax perpetuated by Indonesian operators in claiming their service offerings were the cheapest rates in the world. Rohman calls it one of the best pieces he has written to this day in terms of both language and content.

The publication of his first op-ed gave Rohman the confidence to keep writing on ICT and public policy topics. He finds this media presence of value in communicating to both government and private sector players.

Rohman’s approach is to “always, always, always” provide data as evidence to support his stance.

“I never present anything I don’t have the data about. It’s what differentiates you from someone chatting about it in a coffee shop.”

He finds his strategy leads to editors not having reason to reject his submissions (with the exception of having already covered the issue for a length of time) and bolstering their trust in him as a contributor of value.

He is also careful to choose the language of writing to match his target audience, writing in Bahasa to reach the wider public as well as policymakers and in English to reach a more intellectual crowd. His other tip is to cite examples from comparable countries. In April 2018, the Indonesian government considered banning Facebook a

Ibrahim Kholilul Rohman

mid concerns of privacy breaches and potential abuse of the platform to influence the upcoming presidential elections through fake news and hate speech. Ibrahim co-authored an op-ed with LIRNEasia researcher Ayesha Zainudeen on the lessons learned from Sri Lanka when the country banned social media in an attempt to curb racial violence in early 2018. Providing such real examples is effective in reaching and influencing policymakers. The proposed ban was eventually dropped.

Be stoic

Rohman, hailing from an area of expertise that almost no one grasps in full, is careful to emphasise the importance of having a longer-term view. “Frustration is part of the journey for all researchers. We may be convinced that our findings or ideas are of importance but that does not mean others would be convinced to recognise that immediately.”

Patience is a virtue of significance in this game. Rohman offers as exemplar an article he wrote on the importance of R&D in promoting a digital economy. It was only two years after its publication, when the CEO of one of the largest players in Indonesia tweeted about the issue that it became a national conversation. Even senior researchers must sometimes wait long years to see an impactful result. “We may not be able to control if our knowledge is transferred and acted upon, but at least we have to try,” Rohman says.

And it is not often that one’s contribution to the policy-making process is acknowledged. “Be humble,” Rohman advises. “It is essential to remember and reflect on the fact that we are not always correct.”

Also, in ICT, “you’re not Tom Cruise, you’re not Spiderman,” says Rohman. “You can’t solve the problem on your own. That means you always have to rely on others to help you.”

He mentions as example his collaboration with computational social scientist and technology policy specialist Moinul Zaber, PhD, now an associate professor at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. Rohman got to know Zaber at CPRsouth. He “jumped right in and offered his hand to help” Rohman conduct a three-day intense workshop on spectrum valuation in Indonesia, attended by those directly responsible for spectrum in Indonesia.

Working together

Rohman’s meteoric rise from graduate student to a man with numerous academic papers and op-eds in the prestigious Jakarta Postunder his belt – with visits to nearly three score countries in between – is a narrative of collaboration.

He was assigned to conduct research on telecom pricing in Indonesia while working as a junior research associate at the economic think tank of the University of Indonesia. But now, he is clearly passionate about leveraging ICT in developing nations and ultimately bettering the lives of people. He likens ICT to the radical changes following the inventions of the steam engine and the light bulb but qualifying that it has far more extensive power to significantly affect the well-being of humanity.

The primary driver of his inspiring journey, he says, was CPRsouth. He received mentoring from senior researchers and built a network of peers engaged in a plethora of aspect of ICTs through the program. What started as a single practical training experience has led to the successful completion of his PhD in Technology and Society at the Chalmers University of Technology, co-authored papers and op-eds and collaborative research.

“If you commit yourself to contribute to ICT there are millions of aspects that you have to take into consideration. And you will not be able to tackle them all alone. You have to be in the network. You have to always be open to input from others. And that is the beauty of CPR.”

Rohman’s experience – in contrast to the dearth in knowledge sharing afflicting the hard sciences – is one of active collaboration raising both the individual and the subject at large, coming full circle to embody the purpose of ICTs: connecting the people of the world.

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