UK’s DFID urged to step up a gear on capacity building

The report recommends boosting support for young researchers Copyright: Flickr/RMTip21

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The United Kingdom’s international development policies must improve their support for capacity building in science and technology (S&T), says a parliamentary report.

While the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has made efforts to integrate science into its work over the past eight years, more should be done, the Science and Technology Committee said in its report, ‘Building scientific capacity for development’, published last month (26 October).

The report says that DFID could better foster capacity for S&T in developing nations by implementing a range of measures, such as funding young researchers, establishing international science hubs and a network of chief scientific advisors in developing nations, and improving internal scientific expertise.

The document identified the merits and shortcomings of DFID’s S&T capacity building activities, which a 2004 committee inquiry highlighted as an area of concern.

The report recognised that a better scientific culture now existed within DFID but urged the department to be more explicit about the importance of capacity building, and to improve its access to S&T expertise by employing more skilled staff and through contact with external scientific bodies.

Another top priority for DFID is to improve funding policies by, for example, providing greater clarity about how it funds low-cost programmes via independent organisations, and ensuring that initiatives that receive support become self-sustaining over time.

DFID should also adapt the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC), which provides awards for developing nation scientists at the start of their careers, to provide better post-qualification support to continue their research.

Funders such as DFID should also attempt to incentivise North–South collaboration by speeding up the rate at which projects produce publishable material.

Establishing more research hubs for DFID overseas staff, similar to existing centres in China and India, would help to address the disconnect between DFID London headquarters and its overseas offices.

Finally, DFID should also encourage developing nations to appoint chief scientific advisers, and to help build a strong international network for these advisers to share knowledge.

Peter Guthrie, professor of engineering for development at Cambridge University, United Kingdom, and a witness at the committee meeting, told SciDev.Net the report was "a genuine step forward" in improving S&T capacity building in development policy.

But he cautioned that DFID should not become overly fixated on capacity building without considering how it fits into a wider development context, including infrastructure provision.

For an integrated approach, DFID needs a drastic improvement in its scientific and engineering capacity, he added.

Although the "timely" report tackled most of the major issues, it was doubtful that it would have a real impact, said Hassan Virji, executive director of START, an organisation that promotes research-driven capacity building.

What the report lacks, he added, is a long-term strategy for implementing the deep structural changes within DFID, such as making science and engineering central to decision making, that would create an environment conducive to capacity building.

"To meet the demands of enhancing capacity requires a change in behaviour, which takes a long time," he told SciDev.Net.

Link to full report