Select Committee on Science and Technology Thirteenth Report

5 DFID Approach to Science, Technology and Research

Lack of scientific culture

77. During the course of this inquiry, we repeatedly heard complaints about the lack of scientific culture within DFID. Dr Brown from the Oxford Forestry Institute said his perception was that DFID staff "under-value science" and told us that whilst he supported DFID's "change in emphasis from purely technical solutions to solutions which encompass socioeconomic and policy dimensions and also promote the dissemination of research results in an effective way", he believed that DFID had "moved to a point where there is far too great an emphasis on that".[135] Sir David King also told us that the most important feature in a DFID science and innovation strategy "would be to take science out of the box", explaining that "Science impacts on all aspects of our modern societies […] in terms of poverty eradication it is absolutely key".[136] It is noteworthy that when we tried to discuss this point with the Secretary of State, he told us that he was "grappling with the concept of taking science of out of the box".[137] It is also regrettable, although perhaps not surprising, that the word "science" appears only twice in DFID's Departmental Report 2004.[138] Professor Leach additionally highlighted the need for DFID to "mainstream" its approach to science, recommending that DFID "draw the lessons from […] institution building in other areas of development into the science and technology field, and equally look at where science and technology provide key entry points for dealing with the broader problems of poverty".[139] We agree wholeheartedly. We are not persuaded that DFID has fully grasped the cross-cutting nature of science, and the breadth of the contribution that it can make to meeting international development objectives. See Figure 2 and paragraphs 15 and 79-81 for examples.

78. Another strong indication of the fact that DFID does not identify itself as a department that "does science" was provided by DFID's lack of input into the UK Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014. DFID admitted to us that although all Government departments were asked to contribute to the ten-year strategy, DFID only "sent them the draft [DFID] Research Strategy and said, 'These are the kinds of issues about which we are concerned'", without even submitting a specific request for funding.[140] The ten-year investment framework represented one of the most significant developments in UK science for several years. The fact that DFID gave only a cursory contribution reinforces the idea that DFID does not consider itself to be a department that has a significant involvement in science and research, and further highlights the need for DFID to have a high level staff member responsible for cross-Government liaison on science, technology, innovation and research. By failing to engage properly in these discussions, DFID may have missed an important opportunity to make the case for increased funding for science, technology and research in DFID. This would, for example, have been an ideal opportunity for DFID to argue for a major boost in funding to support science and technology capacity building in developing countries. The importance of such capacity building is addressed in Chapter 6.

79. During this inquiry we sometimes encountered a conflict between proponents of social and natural sciences, or between those advocating greater investment in science and those who believed that improving systems of governance in developing countries should take precedence. These are artificial dichotomies: natural and social science both have key roles to play, alongside governance considerations. The Institute of Water and Environment and the National Soils Resources Institute called for DFID to adopt "an integrated approach […] fusing the best social science and natural science with engineering. Knowledge of natural resources (land, water, vegetation, climate) and of social demands for resource use logically should precede policy and allocation decisions, law and institutions, with engineering interventions following from the preceding areas of science and policy-making. For example, the sustainable use of water for food, people, industry and environment relies on a clear understanding of the extent and current use of water resources, but the capacity to monitor these resources and to inform planning and regulation is negligible in many countries".[141] We endorse this assessment.

80. Various witnesses have suggested that there is a view amongst some members of the international development community that most of the science and technology required to address problems in developing countries is now available and it is just a question of applying it, or granting access to it. Professor Martin Hodnett, for example, commented that he had "heard the case against research voiced in the following terms (by a respected economist) - 'don't we know enough already? Should we not be just applying what we already know?'".[142] We saw for ourselves in Malawi the central importance of applied research and were impressed, for example, by some of the operational research that DFID was sponsoring to improve healthcare delivery there. However, we do not accept that all the requisite scientific and technical knowledge is in existence and merely needs to be applied to the specific contexts and challenges encountered by developing countries. Nor do we accept that there is no role for basic science or blues skies research in meeting the needs of developing countries. Dr Cotton, Director of WELL, noted that in some areas "in technology terms it is the quantum leap stuff which has real application to development; for example, mobile telephony and global positioning", describing how the latter—"a very high technology approach"—has been applied to locating rural water supplies.[143] We also believe that pockets of excellence in basic science in developing countries can contribute to inspiring their young people to consider careers in science and technology. We reiterate that natural and social science both have roles to play in international development, as do basic, applied and operational research.

81. The Royal Society also used satellite technology as an example of DFID's unsatisfactory track record in realising the potential of science and technology: "satellite-based monitoring of rainfall is the only feasible way of obtaining an overview of the large-scale rainfall pattern in Africa. Governments and NGOs could use such information to feed into flood and famine warning systems and crop yield modelling. However little emphasis is placed on this research, as it is not of direct use to individual farmers".[144] In addition, Dr Robin Matthews expressed frustration over the "disappointingly negative attitude within DFID to modelling",[145] the potential benefits of which were explained by Joachim Voss of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture: "Often, it is difficult for decision makers to anticipate the outcomes of their decisions about natural resources, like soils and biodiversity. Moreover, decisions made by one group may have unexpected consequences for another. Modelling research can better enable individuals or groups to foresee the effects of their decisions and actions".[146] DFID is failing to exploit fully the vast potential of the application of science and technology to development.

82. We also heard of examples of good practice within existing DFID research programmes and, as mentioned above, saw some of these ourselves in Malawi (e.g. see Figure 2). More than one witness identified some of the RNRRS programmes as exemplars of best practice, but this was sometimes considered to be as a result of the efforts of the individual programme managers rather than DFID policy.[147] Dr Cotton, Director of WELL, also told us "There has been a very innovative Knowledge and Research Programme in what used to be the engineering division in DFID. I would say the issue is the prominence that gets within DFID as an organisation and the way the outcomes of the work do or do not get fed through to country assistance programmes".[148] We congratulate DFID for having sponsored some excellent research programmes that have made worthwhile contributions to poverty reduction. Regrettably, DFID has not always recognised the value of the work that it sponsors. It is impossible for DFID to gain the full benefit of the research that it commissions until there is widespread appreciation amongst its staff of the true worth of science and research for international development.

The impact of research on policy

83. Increasingly, the idea that research can be delivered unchanged to end users (the so-called "linear model") is being viewed as outdated and inaccurate. Instead, it is now recognised that research needs to be considered in the context of a wider process of innovation, whereby involvement of policy makers, intermediary organisations and end users throughout the research activity results in better targeted results that are taken up far more efficiently, thereby enhancing the impact of the research. However, the November 2003 report commissioned by DFID, Engaging Policy Shapers in the Research Process, observed that DFID had not yet taken on board this approach: "almost everyone recognised there was too big a gap between DFID's policy staff and researchers. Advisers need to be engaged in the research process for them to have a sense of ownership and to see the relevance of particular findings".[149]

84. DFID's draft Research Strategy alludes to the fact that "The process of take-up of research is not linear" and notes that DFID has been funding a major research programme, RAPID, to improve the impact of research on policy.[150] DFID now has an excellent opportunity to demonstrate its own ability to incorporate the results of research into policy by modifying its approach to research in the light of the findings of the RAPID research programme. We hope that this will lead to an improvement in the impact of the research that DFID undertakes.

Evidence-based policy making

85. DFID has a Public Service Agreement target to develop evidence-based, innovative approaches to international development and all Government departments have an obligation to undertake evidence-based policy making. However, the Institute of Water and Environment and the National Soils Resources Institute were sceptical of DFID's ability to adopt such an approach, telling us that there was a need "to clarify the role of science as a basis for informed policy design and implementation" for the benefit of DFID.[151] Professor Julian Evans echoed this view: "It [DFID] should also be able to back its philosophy of using an 'evidence-based' approach with a real commitment and procedures to make use of the research which it funds".[152]

86. DFID told us that it "assesses the impact or potential impact of its research on poverty reduction through formal external evaluation".[153] Yet much of the evidence received criticised DFID for failing to invest sufficiently in evaluating and learning lessons from past projects and research experience. The Appropriate Development Panel of the Institution of Civil Engineers commented that it was "not aware of any evidence that research projects have been analysed to establish what has been successful in making a valuable contribution to poverty reduction, where extended research would pay dividends and, equally, what research has been fruitless and should not be repeated. Indeed there is no evidence of an effort to collate examples of good practice".[154] The Chairs of the independent RNRRS Programme Advisory Committees also told us there had "been little effort to review lessons learned, and projects that were less successful or unsuccessful have not been analysed".[155] Furthermore, the Surr Report identified evaluation as an area of weakness in DFID, and we note that DFID was unable to provide data on the percentage of the research budget spent on evaluation in response to a Parliamentary Question.[156] We conclude that DFID has failed to devote sufficient attention to evaluation of research. DFID must ensure that its past deficiencies in evaluation of research are rectified. We welcome the fact that DFID is strengthening its evaluation department and is now undertaking evaluations of two major research programmes in renewable natural resources and engineering,[157] and also note that DFID's recent publications, such as the new HIV/AIDS Strategy, Taking Action, place greater emphasis on evaluation. However, resolving this problem will require a culture change within DFID as well as good intentions and the increased resources already at its disposal. The current lack of scientific culture in DFID is discussed in paragraph 77.

Funding international research organisations—the case of CGIAR

87. One example of a DFID policy development that lacks a clear genesis in specific evidence is provided by DFID's decision to increase its investment in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The CGIAR is a global partnership that oversees the work of 16 international research centres, with the aim of mobilising agricultural science to reduce poverty, promote agricultural growth and protect the environment. The Natural Resources Institute was not alone in raising questions about DFID's investment in the CGIAR, telling us that it was "possible that at least some of the same developmental outputs could be derived more cheaply and efficiently from the 'highly reformed' UK institutions at its disposal working with developing country partners".[158] Professor David Taylor, Centre for Tropical Veterinary Medicine, also questioned the wisdom of the UK's contribution to the CGIAR: "it must be argued that the UK's investment in the CGIAR would be better spent on: a, reinforcing direct support for UK scientists through competitive grant schemes; b, support for regional and national agencies in developing countries including MSc and PhD training; and c, to continue and expand the support for the special collaborative programmes of the European Union".[159] An independent evaluation of the CGIAR, published after DFID's decision to increase funding, acknowledged that there had been "serious concerns about the continuing relevance and developmental cost-effectiveness of the CGIAR system".[160]

88. In the light of these concerns, we asked DFID in June 2004 to provide the evidence on which the decision to increase its contribution to the CGIAR from £10 to £20 million per annum was based. The only explanation that DFID gave us was that "Additional support for the CGIAR recognises that it has increased its focus on poverty and that UK action might encourage other members of the international community to follow suit".[161] Moreover, despite our request, DFID did not supply us with any indication that formal assessment of the relative merits of this investment, as opposed to alternative funding routes for agricultural research, had been undertaken. We therefore assume that this decision was made without a thorough evaluation, in direct contravention of DFID's stated commitment to evidence-based policy making. It is not for us to form a judgement on whether or not DFID was right to increase its investment in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research from £10 to £20 million per annum. However, we are surprised and disappointed by DFID's inability to provide concrete evidence for the basis of this decision. It is unacceptable for DFID to make an investment of this scale without being able to provide a considered justification.

Research Strategy

Consultation process

89. The draft DFID research funding framework 2005-07 (referred to as the "Research Strategy") was published on 11 May 2004.[162] In preparation for the new Strategy, the Central Research Department commissioned five papers to provide background information and identify options to be considered in the new strategy, based around the recommendations of the Surr Report. These papers addressed the role of DFID in relation to the private sector, international research, national research, in-country research, and communication of research. DFID also commissioned Janet Lewis, formerly Research Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to prepare a paper entitled "Engaging Policy Shapers in the Research Process".[163] In addition to issuing a public consultation, DFID invited relevant bodies to convene a series of workshops in the UK on particular themes and suggest researchable ideas for the new DFID Research Strategy. The workshops covered three themes: social and political change (hosted by the Development Studies Association); applied technologies to improve livelihoods (hosted by the Tropical Agriculture Association and Appropriate Development Panel of the Institution of Civil Engineers); and health and well-being (hosted by the Royal Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene).

90. The resulting proposals were reviewed by DFID advisers and senior staff, who assessed them on the basis of criteria relating to their potential contribution to the MDGs and long-term poverty reduction, how amenable the topic was to research, whether other donors were already providing sufficient funding, and whether DFID had a comparative advantage as a funder. The full list of topic suggestions generated was retained to inform subsequent scoping of research topics and the resulting Research Strategy was sent for comment to a small number of peer organisations, including OST, prior to publication.

91. There was considerable disquiet over DFID's approach to the development of the Research Strategy. Dr Nick Brown from the Oxford Forestry Institute told us prior to publication of the Strategy that "there is alarm that this whole process of the review of the Research Strategy is taking place behind closed doors with very little consultation with many of the actors who have enormous experience".[164] He then went on to describe the "sense of outrage that […] the only way in which we have been consulted in this process was to ask for our big ideas".[165] Rothamsted Research also described its "considerable concern that DFID, despite the consultations that have taken place, is not fully utilising the UK science base with much relevant experience".[166] In addition, Professor Lawton, Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council told us: "I don't think they [DFID] contacted any of the Research Councils proactively" and said that he had only known about the consultation for the Research Strategy because he had "happened to blunder across it".[167] Whilst we realise that DFID's decision to open the draft Research Strategy for consultation gave the opportunity for those who so wished to comment on it, we are concerned that the original consultation process caused so much disquiet amongst the development sciences community. Irrespective of whether the lack of consultation affected the quality of the draft Research Strategy, by creating the impression that it was not interested in utilising the extensive experience of leading development scientists in the UK, DFID has damaged its relationship with the UK research base.

92. The fact that the new Research Strategy was developed with minimal consultation with the end users in developing countries is even more worrying. Dr Andrew Dorward from the Centre for Development and Poverty Reduction at Imperial College, for example, remarked that "too little attention appears to have been given to mechanisms and processes for identifying research priorities of those who will use research outputs […] Given DFID's strong commitment to research relevance and uptake, this is very surprising".[168] When questioned on this subject in oral evidence, Mark Lowcock, Director General, Corporate Performance and Knowledge Sharing in DFID, acknowledged this area of weakness: "We do want to strengthen our links and our responsiveness to what developing countries are saying […] We need to work harder at hearing the voices of developing countries".[169] When we asked DFID how they proposed to achieve this, DFID told us that its "research planning process will consult widely with developing country partners, and these views will be fed into the Funders' Forum by DFID".[170] This is not a satisfactory response to a vital question. We put it to DFID that the Country Offices would have provided an obvious channel through which to obtain the views of developing countries. We were shocked by Mr Lowcock's response: "I think that is an idea we can look at", which implied that DFID had not explored that possibility in the past.[171] It is highly regrettable that DFID appears to have given so little attention to gaining developing country input to the Research Strategy. DFID's failure to incorporate the views of developing countries into the Strategy makes a mockery of its claim to follow a demand-led approach and calls into question the value of the Strategy.

Future research topics

93. The draft Research Strategy states that approximately two-thirds of DFID's centrally-funded research will be directed towards four major research themes: agricultural productivity in Africa; killer diseases; states that work in the interest of the poor; and climate change. In addition, the Strategy mentions 12 further areas in which DFID will seek proposals for new extended research programmes starting in 2005.[172] The Strategy explains that these were identified on the basis of the consultation, but there are some notable omissions, such as urbanisation and rural planning (including physical infrastructure), that were identified during the consultation workshops.[173] DFID's decision to focus research in a limited number of areas is sensible and we are broadly supportive of the priorities identified. However, we urge DFID to take into account the enabling role of engineering and technology in meeting the identified priorities. For example, see Figure 2 and paragraphs 15 and 79-81.

94. The RNRRS and Engineering and Knowledge Programmes represent two of DFID's largest research investments and it is surprising that DFID chose to develop the new Research Strategy before evaluations of these programmes had been conducted (we understand that these are both now being reviewed). The RNRRS Programme, which has been running since 1995, was actually due to terminate in 2005 but following public criticism by witnesses of that decision during the course of this inquiry it was granted a year's extension. It is a source of alarm that DFID did not seek to learn the lessons of its £200 million investment in the Renewable Natural Resources Research Strategy Programme prior to the development of a new Research Strategy. This is suggestive of poor planning and management. DFID's decision to develop a new Research Strategy at this time, in the absence of key information and a DFID Chief Scientific Adviser, was imprudent.

Wider approach to research

95. The Research Strategy states that DFID "will give more effort to building developing country research capacity, and to disseminating existing research ideas. We will look to work jointly with others, especially through further support to international initiatives, Public Private Partnerships, and a UK funders forum that will allow us to work more closely with other UK research councils".[174] We welcome DFID's increased emphasis on dissemination of research results and capacity building and discuss these in more depth in paragraphs 71-76 and Chapter 6, respectively. The Funders' Forum is discussed in paragraph 168. The DFID Research Strategy additionally notes that "DFID's research choices will also be informed by a horizon-scanning exercise across the whole of DFID - to identify research and policy agendas by looking 10-20 years ahead. This will help avoid the risk of having time horizons that are too short, and of missing longer-term opportunities and threats".[175] We agree that DFID would benefit from horizon scanning activities and encourage DFID to learn from the experience of other Government departments. Defra, for example, has recently established a horizon scanning exercise that is widely considered to be a model of good practice.[176]

96. We endorse the view of the Biosciences Federation that the Research Strategy is "a welcome step towards the development of a UK strategy for development research".[177] Nonetheless, we also note that the Research Strategy addresses only a limited aspect of DFID's approach to science and technology. As the Intermediate Technology Development Group, an NGO, pointed out, DFID still "does not have a clearly articulated policy, strategy or position on science, technology and innovation". A high priority for DFID's new Chief Scientific Adviser must be to develop a coherent policy on science, technology and research that encompasses issues such as the provision of scientific and technical advice to DFID and the effective use by DFID of scientific knowledge and research results to promote innovation.

135   Q135 Back

136   Q 288 Back

137   Q 540 Back

138   Excluding Annexes Back

139   Q 71 Back

140   Q 550 Back

141   Ev 245, para 10 Back

142   Ev 123 Back

143   Q 404 Back

144   Ev 284 Back

145   Ev 143, para 8 Back

146   Ev 229, para 66 Back

147   e.g. Ev 212, para 67 Back

148   Q 385 Back

149   Janet Lewis, Engaging Policy Shapers in the Research Process, November 2003 Back

150   DFID, DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-07, May 2004 Back

151   Ev 244 Back

152   Ev 254 Back

153   Ev 372 Back

154   Ev 144 Back

155   Ev 175, para 22 Back

156   HC Deb, 24 June 2003, col 687W Back

157   See paragraph 94 Back

158   Ev 210, para 54 Back

159   Ev 243, para 23 Back

160   Keith A. Bezanson, Sunita Narain and Gerhard Prante, Independent Evaluation of the Partnership Committees of the CGIAR, April 2004 Back

161   Ev 373 Back

162   DFID published the final version of its Research Funding Framework 2005-2007 (referred to as the "Research Strategy") in September 2004. The points made in this Report pertaining to the draft Research Strategy apply equally to the final Research Strategy. Back

163   Janet Lewis, Engaging Policy Shapers in the Research Process, November 2003 Back

164   Q 164 Back

165   Q 167 Back

166   Ev 153 Back

167   Q 204 Back

168   Ev 150 Back

169   Q 342 Back

170   Ev 373 Back

171   Q 341 Back

172   DFID, DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-07, May 2004 Back

173   Ibid Back

174   Ibid Back

175   Ibid Back

176   Defra defines horizon scanning as the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments which are at the margins of current thinking and planning. Horizon scanning may explore novel and unexpected issues, as well as persistent problems or trends.  Back

177   Biosciences Federation, DFID Research Funding Framework 2005-7: A response from the Biosciences Federation to the Department for International Development, July 2004 Back

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