Funding agencies should support closer interaction between development NGOs and scientists, argues research and policy analyst Charlie McLaren.
The capacity and skills that reside in the sciences have much to offer NGOs implementing and delivering development and humanitarian interventions. So it is unfortunate that engagement between NGO and science communities remains largely ad hoc and piecemeal.
To tackle the complex international development challenges of today, we need to make research more relevant and useful to those directly supporting vulnerable and marginalised communities — the NGOs.
In a world where more than one billion people live in extreme poverty, science can do much to help. From technological and social innovation to improving policy through greater use of evidence, a strong scientific base can help NGOs understand and provide effective solutions to complex challenges in development.
NGOs can also provide the interface that helps ensure scientific research benefits vulnerable communities. NGOs can inform research by consulting with target communities to identify and articulate their needs, by supporting knowledge transfer to communities and by using their networks to help roll-out research products.
Barriers to overcome
To do this effectively, several barriers preventing NGOs from helping to develop, disseminate and use science need to be overcome.
The technical language that scientists use is a major obstacle to understanding and acting on scientific guidance, particularly when trying to articulate underlying uncertainties, assumptions and limitations. When science is communicated poorly, it can both discourage engagement and risk inadvertently misinforming actions.
The conviction of six Italian seismologists who provided what were deemed to be 'false assurances' to the public before the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in Italy — an earthquake that took the lives of more than 300 people — is an extreme example of this.
Another obstacle is NGOs' limited influence over the development of research agendas. If involved at all, they are largely at the fringes of the processes and structures that determine how research funds are allocated and spent.
More often than not, it is academics who identify research gaps and contribute to decisions about priorities. Likewise, the commissioning boards and committees that sign off research projects and programmes are predominately populated by well-respected scientists.
This ensures high-quality research is commissioned — but it also helps maintain a structure where NGOs often don't use relevant research findings, either because they are not aware of them, or because the outputs fail to fully satisfy their operational needs.
A further barrier is that academic career advancement remains strongly linked to generating publications. This is supported through funding that prioritises scientific excellence over practical application and engagement outside the scientific community. Scientists are generally encouraged to 'do the science' but not to make sure it gets used.
A way forward
While the challenges are significant, they are certainly not insurmountable. What is crucial is to develop a pragmatic and systematic approach that confronts the barriers.
Firstly, NGOs need to play a greater role in designing research agendas. Where NGOs are a potential 'customer' of the research, their participation in identifying research gaps and setting priorities for investment would do much to make research outputs more useful and useable. And commissioning boards should give greater weight to whether research findings will have a practical use when they set criteria for investment.
Success in encouraging academics to engage with NGOs will also, fundamentally, depend on whether the right incentives are in place.
In the United Kingdom, whilst knowledge exchange (supported by Research Councils UK and the Department for International Development among others) is recognised as necessary to increase the social and economic impact of scientific investment, it receives significantly less funding than that targeted toward new research. This limits the flow of academics toward knowledge exchange activities as, ultimately, they follow the funding sources available to them.
So one obvious way to motivate interaction is for research funders to earmark a greater proportion of money for knowledge exchange and translation in research grants — with the precondition that such activities establish whether their impact is greatest when embedded within, or kept separate from, research analysis and interpretation. Greater recognition for academics involved in this kind of work would help too.
It will, of course, be equally important that these efforts are complemented by an increase in the scientific capacity and literacy of NGOs — meaningful and sustainable engagement will require concerted and coherent interventions on both sides.
Developing an increasingly problem-oriented research agenda, as defined by research users, would certainly strengthen the connection between science and practical day-to-day challenges. And that would help NGOs and the communities they support.
Charlie McLaren is a research and policy analyst for the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS). He can be contacted at email@example.com.