How can science from the Global South play a greater role in development policy? This column outlines how to build effective ‘research ecosystems’ that can help to match the supply of research and the demand for new knowledge to inform economic and social development. Key elements include mechanisms for supporting young Southern scientists, for enabling researchers to engage ‘outside the lab’, for making relevant scientific information usable, and for working with policy-makers to provide rigorous, timely, and often locally produced evidence.
Take any of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) from SDG 1 on (No Poverty) to SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), or any global challenge affecting the livelihoods of millions of people, from income inequality to malaria, and there is inevitably a need for new knowledge. But how do we decide who should do the research, what level of resources to allocate, and how to help get it to the right people?
Moving away from generic calls for more evidence-informed policy, the development community can engage in deeper reflections and support emerging programs that enable science from the Global South to play a greater role.
One conceptual tool that can help is the idea of alignment—or conversely of ‘mismatch’—between the supply of research, and the demand for new knowledge to inform socio-economic development. This is especially important in developing countries, where resources for science are scarce.
Another is the notion of an effective ‘research ecosystem’, where the focus is on a broad range of interactions rather than a few key people or organizations.
Research for development: setting the ‘right’ agenda
The Science Granting Councils Initiative was created in 2015 to strengthen the capacities of 15 science granting councils and their like in sub-Saharan Africa to support research that will contribute to economic and social development. Yet these councils navigate a wide range of expectations and pressures—from national and international science communities, governments, and international donors, to name but a few.
Pushes for decontextualized ‘excellence’, following models of research assessment developed (and now widely criticized) in the Global North, often create perverse incentives that hinder research for development. Furthermore, despite efforts to the contrary, many North-South collaborations continue to be unequal in their inherent design, and are relatively ineffective at both building capacity and addressing the priorities of developing countries.
Yet more than ever what are needed are mechanisms to allow countries in the Global South to take ownership of their research agenda, while strengthening the dialogue between researchers and research users, and supporting international collaborations to address global challenges.
Science funding agencies worldwide need to demonstrate value for money through effective management of research funds, and by being ‘intentional’ to achieve meaningful results and address glaring ‘mismatches’ in priority research areas.
In the Global South, where public funds are often scarce, articulating pathways from research to ‘development outcomes’, for example, can be critical. This in turn can lead to increased support for research, greater public recognition of scientific evidence, and strengthened university education.
Robust research methodologies are a necessary but insufficient condition for articulating these pathways. Beginning at the earliest stages of research planning, scientists and research administrators must reach out to businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholders who understand the relevant local, national, and regional contexts.
Building effective research ecosystems for development: networks, people, and tools
It is not just about central governments dictating how research funds should be spent in their country. Rather, we need strong public science ecosystems that can focus on the capacity of researchers and knowledge brokers, and which enable new structures and networks that bridge the gap between research and policy.
Thinking in terms of research ecosystems has many concrete implications for Global South-based research for development. First, it is about creating productive and sustainable networks. This means designing North-South research collaborations in a purposeful way to promote equity, brain circulation (instead of ‘brain drain’), and skills transfer.
It also means promoting new international South-South research collaborations, which are infrequent compared with North-North and North-South partnerships. It also means enabling networks of people and organizations with complementary skills to operate at the science-policy interface. These networks should be combining technical knowledge with an understanding, for example, of regional markets, of rural livelihoods, or of public policy gaps.
Second, in these networks, we need Southern scientists who are well recognized nationally and internationally, both within the scientific and policy communities.
A few key initiatives—such as the International Network on Government Science Advice (INGSA) and the African Science Leadership Programme (ASLP)—are enabling researchers to acquire skill sets for engaging and leading ‘outside the lab’. More broadly, we need mechanisms to support early career scientists, such as those managed by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and the Organization for Women in Science in the Developing World (OWSD).
Third, we need tools and systems to make relevant scientific information available and usable. Platforms such as AAS Open and SciELO can enhance the visibility of knowledge considered of national or regional relevance, sometimes in languages other than English, which would otherwise struggle to compete in the increasingly large marketplace of mostly Northern publishers.
In addition, as INGSA’s experiences in Africa, Asia, and Latin America show, we need structures of various types that can broker this information by tapping into the policy ‘demand’ in a systematic way. This is not about researchers telling politicians ‘what to do’. Rather, it is about working with decision-makers to understand the needs for rigorous, timely, and often locally produced evidence for policy, and to co-develop the means to provide that evidence.