james-gThe Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) is a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK government to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. As the GCRF looks to fund interdisciplinary research and maximize its impact, James Georgalakis reflects on what can be learned from previous examples of successful evidence-based policymaking; from the importance of effective networks to the establishment of long-term research and knowledge initiatives. It is designing research that considers its impact from the outset that will be key to whether or not the GCRF proves successful.

At last week’s Grand Challenges Conference, hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, announced 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 mainstream media on development seems stuck 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.

priti-patelImage credit: Priti Patel by Policy Exchange. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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 potentially 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, 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 policymaking. A whole industry has sprung up servicing the needs of the development studies and research-to-policy communities with impact toolkits, 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.

33365-atlasImage credit: 33/365 Atlas by Joe Lodge. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

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 that 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 coalface 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.

This piece originally appeared on the Institute of Development Studies website and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the author

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.

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