How to challenge short term thinking in development and research?

September 3, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Over the next few days this blog will be even more scattergun than usual as I’ve just arrived in Australia for a 3 week tour (including New Zealand). Got in on Sunday evening after weeping my way through all 8 episodes of Broadchurch (hope I didn’t alarm fellow passengers). It’s a fantastic crime drama with the extraordinary Olivia Colman (David Tennant wasn’t bad either). Please note, box-setters, Broadchurch is up there with The Killing (only set in Dorset, and it doesn’t rain quite so much).

First up this week is 3 days teaching on ‘how change happens’ at Murdoch University in Perth. Then off to Melbourne, Canberra, Wellington and Auckland. Updated list of all public events and ticket details here. Met the Murdoch students last night – an amazing bunch, and I imagine there’ll be plenty to talk about on the blog as the course unfolds.

Meanwhile, one of my last conversations before jumping on the plane was with Andree Carter of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences. She’sUKCDS logo doing a ring round of the usual suspects on ‘how to challenge short term thinking on science for development (currently constrained by political and budgetary cycles)’ (Lawrence Haddad was also on her call list). I was a bit confused (eg over whether we were talking about short-termism in aid and development work, or in research itself) but it was a fun conversation, so why not recycle it for the blog?

First on the overall idea: where else have people tried to shift from short-termism to a long term view? Institutional investors trying to go beyond the obsession with quarterly returns? Investing in big infrastructure like energy? Climate change? What are the drivers and blockers in these areas – what lessons can be learned on development research?

Now on to Andree’s questions (in italics), plus my answers:

What will the future research architecture funding and delivery mechanisms look like – will they be fit for purpose in the UK and in other countries – national, regional and global approaches – will national interests always override global needs?

Future research agendas will be decided by the outcome of a number of dichotomies/competing demands:

  • What is right (research funding delinked from nationality of institution) v what is easy, fast and popular with UK institutions (research as tied aid)
  • The need to maximise impact of research by responding to events in the world outside v the steady and slow pace of the academic incentive structure
  • The paradigm clash between value for money and complexity/political science. The first school, dominated by orthodox economists and medics, privileges experimental methods, hard data, and attribution. The second group emphasizes complex systems in which attribution can seldom be conclusively proved, and gives more weight to theory and qualitative evidence. More on this here.
  • The Open Access movement v the dominance of peer-reviewed journals. See here.
  • Linked to this, the emphasis (or lack of it) placed on research impact in future funding decisions. More here.

predictionsRapidly changing geopolitical landscape – UK-led research hubs in E Africa, partnering with China Ministry of Commerce already etc

Step back and ask, what is the UK’s unique selling point? Cash, for a dwindling number of aid dependent countries, but what have we got to offer those countries able to fund their own research? Parallels with the general aid discussion on how to work in middle income countries – e.g. encourage exchanges between researchers in different countries, support ‘excluded research’ topics. See answer to point 4 for some additional thoughts.

The ‘Beyond Aid’ agenda – following the UK International Development Committee inquiry and promoting the key role of science technology and innovation in any new approach

The UK is sitting on a pile of knowledge on a range of issues that are of increasing importance in developing countries: how to minimize the carnage from road traffic, tobacco and alcohol. How to combat obesity and heart disease. How welfare states can guarantee the rights of disabled people, or care for the mentally ill. We have a much clearer offer on these than on, say, agriculture or growth. Yet such Cinderella issues remain largely absent from the official development debate. More here.

Development challenges for the future

  • How do we apply complexity and systems thinking to development challenges? See here.
  • What is the role of research when decision makers are clearly not acting on the basis of evidence (e.g. climate change)? Probably not ‘hey, let’s generate lots more evidence, that should do it.’ How can ‘research for advocacy’ be undertaken without damaging the credibility of the research?
  • And of course, one of the biggest development headaches of them all – what role can outsiders, including researchers, usefully play in strengthening fragile and conflict affected states. More here.

How to best communicate this thinking to help funders think in longer term cycles

  • More funding for longitudinal research, sentinel sites, windows on the world etc, such as Young Lives or our own Food Price Volatility research.
  • Better stories – more convincing narratives on how development happens
  • More cross-silo exchanges, not just interdisciplinary within academia, but between researchers and civil society organizations, media outlets or governments
  • Copy the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s model of funding people, not projects. Spot bright young minds that are likely to come up with innovative solutions, and back them.

Like I said, this week may be a bit more random than usual……..

September 3, 2013
Duncan Green