There is a largely unexplored landscape of opportunity for collaboration between scientists and development practitioners.
The theme of this year's Annual Ministerial Review of the UN Economic and Social Council is the potential of science and technology to deliver sustainable development.
In spite of such a noble gathering's intentions, it is an open secret in international development that practitioners and scientists do not meet that often. Indeed, a quick look at the Review's programme suggests that none of the guest speakers will be scientists, though Virgin's Richard Branson will presumably speak of entrepreneurial innovation.
Last year, a study by SciDev.Net suggested that more than 90 per cent of civil society organisations working on development in Sub-Saharan Africa did not follow developments in science and technology. The statistics were equally concerning in other regions.
Despite this gap, the articles published as part of this week's Spotlight suggest that by challenging a few assumptions about how research planning should work, and adapting current funding patterns, there are better relationships and results to be had.
Opportunity — but challenging terrain
The Spotlight explores challenges to a closer relationship between scientists and NGO development practitioners. Some articles examine the rationale for a closer working relationship while others go further and discuss examples of collaborations that have worked.
The overview article sets out the landscape, recognising the vast operational space that we are seeking to make generalisations about, while acknowledging some emergent trends. SciDev.Net special features editor Anita Makri describes the various ways in which scientific practice appears at odds with the concerns of development workers.
Much of this revolves around different ideas about what makes knowledge useful and valid, as well as divergent work flows and institutional contexts. For instance, while politics has a clear and often welcome role in NGO practice, it is problematic in the natural sciences. However, the article usefully maps the various motivations and opportunities for past, present and future collaborations.
One area that immediately emerges as a concern is under-investment in delivering science to where it is needed — in the science of delivery. In an opinion article, Harry Jones, from the UK's Overseas Development Institute, argues that work to promote science uptake is too often focused at the national and policy level.
Jones maintains that the most valuable examples of science's contribution to development have included community engagement, and are concerned explicitly with rolling-out and applying scientific innovation. Perhaps most significantly, he says that applying models of collective action are the best ways to manage the cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional coalitions needed for applied science.
Our Spotlight feature article provides some inspiring examples of how NGOs can help deliver scientific and technical innovations to communities. In one instance, a human rights NGO enters an unexpected technology partnership to produce a 'kidnap alert' bracelet. And in another example, bottom-up entrepreneurship has catalysed solar lighting sales and technology development in Africa. Both organisations make a compelling call for "user-focused approaches" to planning research.
Little incentive to bridge gaps
However, Charlie McLaren, from the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences, reflects on the substantive challenges to scaling up NGO and science partnerships. He points to research funders' relatively limited investment in the knowledge exchange agenda, even for those funders operating nominally in the development sector.
The reasons relate to incentive structures and training for researchers, neither of which privilege non-academic partnerships. However, McLaren points out that investments in researchers' capacity to engage NGOs really should be matched by similar investment in NGOs' capacity to engage research. As things stand, there is certainly more talk about the former than the latter.
Rachel Hayman, from the International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC) in the UK, takes this consideration further. Moving beyond the normal ambition to turn research into action, she calls for turning action into research.
Hayman considers how NGOs typically generate and source knowledge, and identifies a number of gaps between their capabilities as stakeholders and how scientists conceive research agendas, and approach dissemination.
And Dipak Gyawali, of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, argues that Southern NGOs should take a more clearly challenging role as stakeholders in development policy. He charts the growth of NGOs over recent decades and finds that in having become associated with Northern policy that sidesteps Southern governments, their role has been compromised by the funding and power of foreign aid.
Yet Gyawali sees these organisations as essential to science-based policy, and to a renewed relationship between global know-how and local empowerment.
Invest in collaboration
Often, the science of delivery is understood as starting with the end user of research in mind. But achieving delivery is both easier and more complex than that.
While in practice, much research effort starts with little concern for either demand or capabilities for applying it, sometimes it is difficult to conceive a priori where scientific knowledge will have a great impact. There are many examples of this throughout the history of science, from radio waves to plastic.
Also, there is a need to make use of what is there already, and not focus all partnerships on generating new knowledge per se. This means that not only should researchers involve end-users earlier in the process, but that practitioners themselves might start seeking solutions by considering what is already available.
To achieve more efficient delivery of science and its innovative applications we need two measures. The first is about investing in people and spaces that allow scientists with substantial local knowledge to focus on roll-out.
Acting as delivery experts, they will innovate by brokering and adapting technologies or by supporting capacity sharing amongst stakeholders, from communities to government agencies. There is clearly a role for NGOs and research institutions in the global South here.
Secondly, research funders and mainstream development funders should become closer partners, sharing responsibility for science in the service of development. A good place to start is allocating more resources to innovating and testing approaches to collaboration between scientists and NGO practitioners. This Spotlight shows there are already some promising examples.
It is a difficult task, but science — and civil society — have risen to greater challenges.
Nick Ishmael Perkins