Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Andrew Dorward, Director, Centre for Development and Poverty Reduction, Imperial College, London

1.   The co-ordination of research support with Government policy on the use of science in development policy, taking into account the work of the Research Councils and the objectives of HM Treasury, DTI, OST, FCO, the British Council and DFID

  Increasing liaison between DFID and the Research Councils is to be welcomed, however it is important that the arrangements become more transparent as regards their administration and as regards their specific focus, and that this is supported by a clear commitment by Research Councils to support of work in and relevant to developing countries. One of my colleagues, for example, reports that in their experience (with the MRC) applications for funds to undertake research targeted at developing countries may be given a lower priority (with very highly rated projects being turned down due to funding restrictions).

  An important issue here concerns the prioritisation of research. One approach is that in addition to looking for rapid poverty reduction gains from research (and from better utilisation of existing knowledge), the UK government should pay particular attention to the science of longer term problems that are global, affecting both North and South, and require shared knowledge and cooperation. Such processes presently include, for example, climate change and shared processes of environmental change; pandemic diseases; biosecurity (and its effect on ecosystems and trade); bio-technology for small/poor farmers; information technology revolutions. Choice of research priorities should be linked to (a) the potential risks that an issue poses to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, as well as its potential contribution to hastening their achievement, and (b) comparative advantage of the UK in that field. Better coordination across DFID, Research Councils and other research funders might aid in prioritization and also allow an effective division of funding responsibilities to address different issues, and different aspects of these issues, in ways that reflect and accommodate particular funders' interests and mandates, but also properly "cover the waterfront".

  A critical issue for DFID's new research strategy relates to its approach to prioritising research. This appears to have focussed on (a) developing a broad management/funding structure (discussed below, where we question the proposed balance between large programmes and smaller responsive research projects), (b) consideration of different funding mechanisms and partnerships, and (c) identification of topics for the "first round" of new research funding (in large programmes). Too little attention appears to have been given to mechanisms and processes for identifying research priorities of those who will use research outputs, with inputs from policy makers, business, civil society and DFID (and other donor) offices in developing countries. Given DFID's strong commitment to research relevance and uptake, this is very surprising. A major issue here is the need to overcome the very short term nature of much development work and development funding, and hence to look beyond the short time horizons forced on many working on development problems.

2.   The means by which DFID acquires and uses scientific advice in developing and implementing its policies and programmes

  This varies between different areas of DFID activity (for example research has been managed very differently in the health and natural resources sectors) and is in a rapid state of flux at present. Key considerations here are the balance between competitive bidding (and the processes of inviting and awarding bids) and ongoing relations with "core" providers. Increasing emphasis on competitive bidding is to be welcomed (provided that it is conducted in a way that is transparent and fair, and does not place too high a burden on bidders preparing bids—a problem in the past, but which DFID has to some extent attempted to address).

  Increasing emphasis on the application of research to practical problems in developing countries is also important and welcome. However too strong an emphasis on this and too narrow a focus on today's problems carries the danger of undermining the basic scientific base from which to address tomorrow's problems—this base requiring both development of pure science (needed to underpin future applied advances) and scientists with both technical knowledge and knowledge of developing country problems/opportunities. We are concerned that the new research policy being developed by DFID will fall into this trap. DFID and the Research Councils need to consider together how to develop a proper balance in supporting applied research, pure research, and an appropriate level of expertise in the UK.

  Current proposals for DFID's Central Research Strategy appear to be placing a very strong emphasis on funding relatively large programmes focussed around "major development problems". This is to be accompanied by a very substantial scaling down of smaller "responsive research" projects put forward from outside such programmes. This scaling down appears to be justified in terms of the high administrative cost to DFID of the smaller "responsive research" projects. The logic and benefits of this argument are highly questionable. First, costs have to be related to benefits, and evidence is therefore needed of the overall greater cost effective impacts of larger projects. Second, large programmes are inherently inflexible and slow, so that by the time a consensus has been reached around a "large problem", and the research tendering and commissioning process completed, a significant amount of time will have elapsed. To put almost all research funds into such a slow and cumbersome system is not a recipe for cutting edge research that addresses current problems and opportunities with current knowledge. Third, small and almost speculative projects can have major payoffs in setting up whole new lines of enquiry: to almost abandon this opportunity again seems very unwise. Fourth, very limited funding for "smaller responsive" project is likely to lead to increasing concentration of development related research in large specialist institutions. Where such concentration is needed in particular fields requiring large and specialist facilities, this will occur naturally in these fields. Further pressures for concentration are likely to be unhealthy—reducing the diversity needed for the intellectual and economic competition that stimulates good and relevant research. DFID should therefore be strongly encouraged to reconsider this proposed scaling down of funding for responsive research projects.

3.   The extent to which investment in research and the promotion of innovation play a part in DFID's country level development programmes

  Again this varies between sectors and countries but short term programmes and objectives tend to discourage country programmes from supporting longer term research—an issue that has become increasingly important over the last few years, and which needs to be addressed more thoroughly in DFID's central research strategy.

4.   The ways in which the role of the UK private sector and public/private partnerships in science and technology research in knowledge transfer and in capacity building programmes for the benefit of developing countries can be enhanced

  DFID is to be complemented for some recent initiatives in supporting these partnerships. However it is important that economic and institutional innovations for uptake of the outputs of such partnerships are given due weight—it is too easy to assume that once useful technologies have been developed then they will be taken up within developing countries, but all too often the economic and institutional conditions necessary for such uptake are not present. Consideration of these constraints, and of means of overcoming them, need to be built into these partnerships from the beginning.

  We observe that despite increasing emphasis on private sector development, capacity building programmes still tend to be biased towards government agencies and NGOs, and their employees, and in many cases private firms are ineligible for support. While there may have been some small improvement on this in the last few years, there is still a long way to go.

5.   The extent of scientific and engineering training provided by the UK as part of development policy and the subsequent utilisation of such training in developing countries.

  Over the last 10 to 15 years there has been dramatic reduction in DFID support to scientific training. Support for MSc and PhD training has fallen dramatically and DFID explicitly excludes any support to formal PhD research training within many research programmes (see for example its recent call for research proposals). There are valid concerns about the cost-effectiveness of some postgraduate (particularly MSc) training: increasing cost-effective local provision in some countries and regions, and ability to finance it from local sources; tendency in some countries for scholarships to be awarded as part of patronage systems; limited long term use of such training; high attrition rates due to HIV/AIDS. However some of these concerns do not apply to some of the poorest countries (for example the ability to provide and finance good local training), while others are challenges that need to be addressed rather than avoided (patronage, limited use of training, and high attrition rates). Support for PhD training within funded research projects offers explicit opportunities for cost effective conduct of research at the same time as building research capacity in developing countries, while maintaining (again at low cost) the UK science/expertise base (as discussed under (2) above).

  Another major problem is how to absorb trained PhDs and postgraduates into relevant positions in their countries. One immediate way forward is to link training to long-term development programmes funded by DFID providing support for relevant posts, including aiding and funding appropriate professional career development pathways. For more academic trainees based at universities and research centres, there might be a need to develop career establishment funding programmes to allow such individuals to return to home institutions with adequate start-up research funds to begin their research careers. Finally, coordinated aid to help develop scientific infrastructure—libraries, laboratories, computing facilities but also professional teacher training—could also lead to long term improvement in scientific capacity development.

November 2003

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