Learn the lessons of impact to tackle global challenges

27 October 2016

If £1.5 billion of UK taxpayers money is going to produce research that can help reduce poverty and promote sustainable development, we need to invest in impact early on.

UK Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, announced yesterday at the Grand Challenges Conference, hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that her department would continue to invest 3% of its budget in research. This very welcome commitment is additional to The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which represents one of the UK's most daring moves to address the challenges faced by developing countries. Patel described the UK as one of the world's: “research super-powers...respected everywhere for both the quality and impact of that research.” Just when parts of the media seem stuck on viewing development in a largely negative frame focusing on alleged aid waste and corruption, this far more positive message speaks strongly to the Government's agenda around UK thought leadership in the world.

However, to what extent will the GCRF, which will more or less match DFID's own research budget, deliver the kinds of impact that Patel is so proud of? Perhaps the most exciting thing about GCRF is that it dares to pop the development bubble, with a great deal of funding formerly managed by DFID and targeted at the usual suspects, now being handed out by the research councils and national academies to attract a broader range of academics within the UK. An overtly interdisciplinary approach with a requirement to fit with Official ODA guidelines means that historians and geographers, biologists, biomedical scientists and mechanical engineers should be joining forces with social scientists, to respond to open calls worth millions of pounds. Some of the initial tenders have even suggested that part of the purpose of the call is to re-orientate those doing research in a UK context to work on producing solutions for low income countries.

ESRC and DFID have valuable lessons to share

Achievement of genuine interdisciplinary research, in which the social sciences are fully integrated, is one big challenge that the GCRF must meet if it is to deliver on its promises. However, a further concern is just how much of GCRF is going to be designed taking on-board the valuable learning arising from years of cutting edge research that emerged from largely Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and DFID funded projects.

Although we all love to moan about a DFID log frame, along with the Canadians, it was DFID that really led the development research impact agenda and forged entirely new approaches to strengthening evidence based policy making. A whole industry has sprung up servicing the needs of the development studies and research to policy communities with impact tool-kits, how to guides, specialist consultancy services and trainings, all aimed at building individual and institutional research uptake capacity.

The impact evaluations, impact case studies and learning arising from all this work tell a compelling story – not all of it comfortable reading for donors and researchers alike. We know what some of the key barriers to impact are and we know why engaged scholarship is more likely to produce scalable solutions to global and local challenges. We also know why top down technical fixes often fail and more local knowledge is vital for social and economic development.

Brilliant individual researchers are great but impact is better

Many donors, and especially DFID, have pushed the impact agenda, while most research councils tend to place more importance around the individual project and in the social sciences at least, around the individual principle investigator with the aim of achieving ‘high-quality’ research. Of course, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) has encouraged some focus on impact and research councils have long required a pathways to impact statement. Nonetheless, to find individual researchers who can achieve both the best research (in narrow terms of publishing in ‘top’ journals) and impact is rare. As I have written before, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that it is networks not prize winners that generally influence changes in behaviours, attitudes, policies and practice.

DFID are less focused on superstar academics and more interested in direct or implied impact on policy and practice. This is perhaps not surprising given the push to justify spending of taxpayers' money and show value for money. At the same time, DFID has given strong support for long-term research and knowledge initiatives and networks. DFID's Research Programme Consortium (RPC) model offers real opportunities to strengthen research to policy processes, develop genuine partnerships, and create new generations of researchers to co-produce knowledge at a local level.

Increasingly DFID also urged us to look beyond a supply driven approach, which is undoubtedly one of the curses of working in any research producing organisation, and look at how to create demand in developing countries for rigorous policy relevant research. There was also longstanding support for whole knowledge systems, seeing research knowledge as a global public good. Funding from DFID's Evidence into Action team has supported the institutional capacity of southern researchers and knowledge intermediaries, funded innovative digital knowledge exchange initiatives and promoted more inclusive forms for knowledge curation and sharing like the Global Open Knowledge Hub. More recently, ESRC and DFID put funds into the Impact Initiative for International Development Research, a programme aimed at enhancing research uptake across a broad portfolio of around 150 projects by brokering stronger relationships between the researchers themselves and relevant policy actors and practitioners.

Design of the GCRF will determine its success

These diverse approaches to maximising research impact, whether focused on individual studies or wider research to policy processes, have been reflected on many times, creating a wealth of learning through acres of reports, thousands of blogs and volumes of journal articles and impact case studies. It will be vital for the GCRF to take heed of all this learning. If a close study of impact theory and practice tells us one thing: It's the design of the research itself, how it is conceived, who is involved from the start and how success is defined, which has the biggest influence on potential impact.

So, it is the design of the GCRF calls themselves which will largely determine whether this brave new vision of UK thought leadership will be realised. We must listen to those who have gone before us and succeeded and failed, we must learn from those at the coal face of impact work, the development researchers, practitioners, local partners and enlightened donors. Failure to do so could threaten to undermine the contribution the UK can make to knowledge for global development and that would be a tragedy.

James Georgalakis is the Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies and the Director of the ESRC DFID Impact Initiative for International Development Research

Like this blog? Coming Soon - When Does Evidence Really Matter: an edited collection of case studies providing first-hand accounts from academics, development agencies, NGOs and donors on how they improved development with research. Publication March 2017 – Open Access and free to download. From the ESRC DFID Impact Initiative and the Institute of Development Studies

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