Research is ‘no panacea’ for development, finds DFID

Carrying Tea_Tim Smith_Panos
Copyright: Tim Smith/Panos

Speed read

  • Evidence fails to support assumptions about how research drives change
  • But funding research may improve the skill base needed for development
  • The ability to use knowledge is a better growth predictor than the ability to create it

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Research is “not a panacea” for development in low-income countries despite making “important and significant contributions to socioeconomic development”, according to an impact review of public research by the UK Department for International Development.

Evidence does not back commonly held assumptions about how research leads to change, for example by directly benefiting economic growth and the quality of higher education, the report says.

The lack of impact may be due to a poor interface between science and policy, and weak technology transfer environments needed to convert knowledge into useful products, it says.

“What they don’t see are the complicated interactions between multiple actors which determine the outcomes of scientific activity.”

Ajoy Datta, ODI

But it does add that funding research may lead to improvement of the skill base necessary for development and, to an extent, design of pro-poor technologies.

The authors of the report were unavailable for comment.

The findings challenge the prevalent view among decision-makers in donor countries that simply supplying LICs with the resources to create knowledge will solve most problems, says Ajoy Datta, a research fellow in the Overseas Development Institute’s Research and Policy in Development unit.

“What they don’t see are the complicated interactions between multiple actors which determine the outcomes of scientific activity,” he tells SciDev.Net. “Research and researchers have a certain role in this mix but it is quite small.”

It is also important to improve cooperation among donors, policymakers, communities and scientists in order to help governments make better use of research evidence, he adds, and in order to develop research relevant to individual countries’ development agendas.

The report, published last month (17 July), finds that public investment in research plays an important role in developing pro-poor technologies, especially in health and agricultural fields, but a lack of scientific capacity limits opportunities to commercialise advances.

The report says that, rather than driving economic development by generating new knowledge and technology, the value of research in LICs is often as a means of building human capital, defined as the sum of a population’s knowledge, skills and attitudes.

As well as helping to fulfil the “urgent need” for technical and critical thinking skills, the report says conducting research can train experts who then advise decision-makers.

Furthermore, the improvements in human capital that research activities bring can lead to development through better appropriation of existing knowledge, it says.

“For LICs, the ability to take up and use knowledge and technology is a better predictor of growth than the ability to generate new knowledge and technologies,” the report says. A major obstacle to the effective use of research in LICs is due to decision-makers either lacking the competence or incentives to pursue evidence-based policies, it says.

“Unless there is sufficient capacity to absorb research results, no amount of research supply will have positive impacts,” it says.

Scientists must work harder to engage donors, policymakers and local communities to produce targeted research that responds to development needs, says Datta.

Bitrina Diyamett, executive director of Tanzanian think-tank Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Research Organization, says the social context of science-based interventions is a crucial element missing in the research landscape.

Without investigating the context in which science and technology is being used, research risks being irrelevant to both politicians and ordinary people, she tells SciDev.Net.

And for this to happen, LICs must fund their own research, as their research agendas are currently dominated by foreign donors, who prefer highly focused projects, often aimed at developing new products, she says.

Rose Wilcher, director of research utilisation at FHI 360, a development NGO based in the United States, says a “deliberate, systematic and sustained effort” is needed to bridge the gap between research and practice.

This could include advocating for a culture of decision-making based on evidence and engaging stakeholders throughout the research process to address pressing and locally relevant needs, she says.

But how results are packaged is also crucial, she believes.

User-friendly formats such as fact sheets, policy briefs and job aids for practitioners must accompany the publication of traditional research reports or peer-reviewed papers, Wilcher says.

“To really get evidence utilised, we have to go way beyond current dissemination strategies,” she tells SciDev.Net.

> Link to full report