02 August 2013

Development Research: The Shape of Things to Come?

A colleague of mine outside of IDS recently asked me for my opinion on development research--what was the future demand going to look like and what would need to happen to meet that demand? Of course these are just my half-baked opinions, but I thought you might find them interesting.

Dear, x, you asked about the shape of future research, here are my views on why we do research, how we do it, what we do it on and how it is used and evaluated.

Why are we doing the research?
I think 2 types of problems will increasingly drive the research agenda: (1) common problems and (2) collective problems. Common problems are development issues that all countries—rich and poor—are facing. Examples include dealing with inequality, connecting citizens with the state, tacking obesity, care provision to the elderly. Collective problems are things that affect everyone and require collective action. Examples include: climate, tax flows, migration, and illegal trade in drugs, arms, people.

How do we do the research?
The Common and Collective research problems will require big changes to the research infrastructure.
  1. Partnerships. For the Common problems, we will need more N-S-E-W kinds of collaborations for comparative work—the partners will be more traditional research partners and will be issue driven. For the Collective problems, the partnerships will be more strategic and more networked—to get a different perspective on a problem that is bigger than any single nation. The partners will tend to be less traditional "development" partners, as many of these issues go way beyond self defined development issues: security forces, businesses, religious groups—all will need to be engaged in various ways
  2. Funding. For the Common problems, we will need funders to tear down the walls between domestic and international issues. For Collective problems, we will need funders to take the long view—10 years or so and for them to back the researchers--invest in the network and the broad goals, but let them get on with it and respond to uncertainties as they emerge.
  3. Journals. The common and collective problems are difficult for journals that are fragmented along domestic/international lines and along disciplines. They need to become more issue driven and less discipline driven.
  4. Research uptake. Both types of problems will entail thinking differently about consumers of research and ways to help them consume it in the right way. The Common research problems will require finding research users who are open to experiences beyond their borders. The Collective problems will require the identification of research users who realise that their actions have consequences beyond their borders, consequences that will eventually come back to bite them unless addressed.
What to do research on?
Everyone will have their favourite issue. But in the Common problem space, non-communicable disease is an issue that is expanding rapidly and one for which we have few good public policy interventions. The challenges of rapid urbanisation, disaffection with elected politicians and harnessing of mobile technologies for more sustainable development represent other common problems. On the Collective side, I listed some issues above. I think we need to add hunger reduction to the list of collective action problems. It is increasingly clear that unless you are a very large country with a massive domestic market (e.g. Brazil, China) it is very difficult to reduce hunger at the national level without a great deal of help from the international architecture (e.g. regulation of biofuels, biotech, trade, intellectual property rights, international land and water acquisitions).
So what? How do we assess the impact of research? 
Fuelled by the recession and the need to demonstrate VFM (almost before the research has begun), research funders have tried to force the issue by insisting on an increasingly narrow set of tools for defining evidence that is good enough to be used to influence policy. While I welcomed the introduction of RCTs and Systematic Reviews into the development toolbox 4-5 years ago, in my view, their advocates have gone way too far and have overplayed their hand. Over and over I see excellent research being blanked out of decision making because it does not fit the narrow definitions of RCTS and Sys Revs. Bizarrely, senior researchers within funding organisations are advocating these methods in a one-eyed way without themselves ever having done one! I can only hope the pendulum will swing back to the middle--and soon.

No comments: