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[LONDON] Researchers hoping to take part in a "cutting edge" attempt to find evidence for and against major development interventions have been hearing whether their bids were successful.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has awarded 37 contracts as part of its programme 'Systematic Reviews in International Development', which will pilot in-depth, rigorous systematic reviews on issues that do not normally receive such treatment. Five more contracts will imminently be awarded.

Almost 200 organisations from around the world applied to do the academic reviews answering questions relevant to policymakers, ranging from: "What is the evidence [for] glacier melt across the Himalayas?" to "How effective have direct subsidies to agriculture been in relation to increasing agricultural sector growth in Africa?"

The questions focus on eight thematic areas: growth and investment, governance, fragile states, climate and environment, social development, human development, agriculture, and aid delivery.

Teams will use commonly accepted methodological tools to rigorously evaluate all the scientific evidence they can find.

Although such tools have been applied in reviewing interventions related to health, education and sanitation, they have not been applied to other aspects of international development, Christopher Whitty, DFID's chief scientific advisor, told SciDev.Net.

Whitty said that the outcomes are expected to be substantial pieces of academic work that will undergo peer review and be published in academic journals.

"This should generate a database of knowledge on these issues, available to everyone," said Max Gastean, DFID's policy advisor in charge of the project.

Andrew Barnett, director of the UK-based The Policy Practice and an editor of the journal World Development, welcomed the initiative and said summaries of existing data will help prevent repetition of research.

"In this field a lot of good stuff doesn't get published, such as nationally-based work seen as too local for journals and ever-more numerous consulting reports that are absent from the public domain," he said.

Systematic reviews can include such work, he said.

But, Barnett added: "The ambition is good, practice will be very difficult". One danger is that the reviews might be conducted by undergraduate students, not authors who can command the respect of policymakers.

Another danger is that they might fail to meet policymakers' needs.
"These reviews are only effective if the people doing them establish a dialogue with users of those reviews," he said.

Six of the awards so far have gone to academic teams based in developing countries, and a further four include developing country collaborators. Developing country winners include: The Centre for Economic Investigations in Uruguay; the Indian Institute of Technology; Development Network Africa; The Analysis Group for Development (GRADE) in Peru; the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B); and Makerere School of Public Health in Uganda.

The winners will be officially announced early this week on DFID's website.