Research should be seen as an asset for democratic societies, an engine of socio-economic development, and a catalyst of human progress – yet there is a growing backlash against scientific rationality and liberal humanism. This column, written by GlobalDev’s founding editors, reiterates the importance for global development of the kind of knowledge that researchers produce. As the blog moves into its third year, GlobalDev will be expanding its activities, including exploring more ways to host the voice of youth and younger researchers from developing countries in vital policy debates.
As populist governments get elected and re-elected across the planet, in rich countries and in good times (but not only there and then), concerns grow about a widespread backlash against scientific rationality and liberal humanism. The quality of democratic debate is suffering from decreasing public trust in science. What is at stake is the notion that research is an asset for democratic societies, an engine of socio-economic development, and a catalyst for human progress.
This debate is a powerful reminder to the scientific community about its public role – and the public role of the particular kind of knowledge that researchers produce. For centuries, the scientific authority has contributed to shaping the development of modern societies: rigorous attempts to generate knowledge about the natural, social, and political world, through systematic questioning and curiosity, matter to society, generation after generation.
This debate is not only relevant for highly developed countries confronting the multiple social and environmental challenges of sustainable development, but also for developing countries, where aspirations of ‘leapfrogging’ to an advanced future give hope to a burgeoning youth population, despite the unprecedented challenge of ’leaving no one behind’ and not depleting natural resources in the process. These are challenges developing and developed countries are tackling at the same time, with only limited experience to share, and much to learn.
We launched GlobalDev two years ago, in February 2018. In our opening editorial, we called for creative solutions to overcome a basic contradiction between hyper-specialization in academia and the new imperative of demonstrable social impact, today a ‘core value’ of universities and research funders alike. In the North and in the South, researchers today need to answer the question: research for what and for whom?
GlobalDev was conceived to provide a platform where knowledge about development, emerging from high-quality research, could be discussed in a format – the blog post – that is accessible to a large audience. GlobalDev developed an editorial process that lives up to this promise: we support each one of our authors to shape their posts with the same rigor and with an important investment of time and editorial skills. Our experience confirms that turning research into knowledge – and turning research on its head to start from a policy challenge rather than a research problem – is far from being intuitive or a simple ‘translation’ task.
A conversation in October 2018 hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington DC, with half a dozen major development donors, confirmed the validity and promise of our approach. It convinced us that GlobalDev should be a home for the voice of developing country academics and a platform in which they can interact with their Northern counterparts, in a curated but lay language.
We have published academics from a range of social science disciplines in over 100 posts and continue to provide all of our content in three languages – something that is somehow out of fashion in a world that (often wrongly) takes English for granted.
The last two years have been rewarding: the number of authors based in an institution in the Global South and from the Global South on our platform has grown three-fold, now constituting about a third of all our content, although we keep aiming higher; the number of unsolicited submissions has increased to multiple requests every week. We keep recording high levels of appreciation for our editorial process from our authors, who find the speed and quality of the editorial feedback energizing.
In 2019, we developed a thematic approach, which will continue to animate our blog. We have given special attention to questions around mental health and social mobility, for example, and much effort has gone into collecting the precious views of non-academics on how research is used, in a joint endeavor with our partner Results for All.
We have also targeted younger scholars and asked what development research means to them: their responses are featured each Wednesday, starting in February, across 10 weeks. These are the young authors whose work was acknowledged and awarded at the Global Development Conference in Bonn, in late October 2019, and we hope they will be joined by many more.
As we move into our third year of activities, we have decided to give even more space to young voices. GlobalDev wants to be a platform where research becomes knowledge. That ambition requires research insights feeding into an informed debate, so that they may be owned by a wide range of stakeholders, and youth has a huge role to play.
We are exploring more ways to host the voice of youth from developing countries: of course that of young researchers, but also that of non-academics, in a space dedicated to debate. Our editorial process will not change, and neither will our standards: we will remain attached to the same rigor and format irrespective of who is writing for us.
We are, however, exploring incentives to make the content we publish the starting point for youth to include, critically, insights from academic research into their own thinking and opinions about development issues. We strongly believe this can multiply opportunities and open up spaces for a better connection between research and policy, online and offline.
Students and young researchers are the next generation of development practitioners, policy-makers, and academics, but also the first ones to feel any progress (or backslide) that development brings about, in their own lives. We believe their voice deserves a space of its own, starting from our platform and those of our partners. We are currently shaping initiatives targeting youth and look forward to hearing from anybody interested in shaping it with us: as a funder, a partner or as a critical friend. Needless to say, keep writing for us too!