Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the British Academy (Int Dev 21)


1. The British Academy is pleased to respond to the inquiry commissioned by the Science and Technology Inquiry to look at the way in which the UK Government supports scientific capacity building in developing countries.

2. As the UK’s national academy for the humanities and social sciences we are keen to promote the fundamental role which our disciplines play in understanding the cultural and societal context for sustainable development, and the distinctive contribution which can be made by social sciences and humanities (SSH) researchers in identifying methods for poverty alleviation. The social sciences and humanities disciplines are essential in addressing areas such as empowering girls and women, boosting wealth creation, strengthening governance and security, and combating climate change. We are concerned that "scientific" capacity building should not be narrowly defined to refer only to the STEM subjects, and that the value of the humanities and social sciences in improving and sustaining the best development and humanitarian outcomes should not be underestimated.

3. The British Academy engages with capacity building issues in a number of ways. Since 2006, we have run an international capacity building programme with a focus on equitable partnership and sustainability. The International Partnership and Mobility scheme is intended to build long-term institutional links between the UK and developing countries based around a programme of research and training. Working with the Association of Commonwealth Universities and other partners, we have also led the development of what is being termed ‘the Nairobi Process’ which proposes a series of frameworks for improving humanities and social sciences research in Africa. Born out of the Nairobi Report [1] published in 2009, the process incorporates a number of initiatives focussed on issues of research capacity, and a follow up report, Foundations for the Future [2] , centred on the challenges faced by, and support for, the next generation of African academics, will be launched by the British Academy at in February 2012 and an advance copy can be made available to the committee.

How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve?

4. The UK Government has primarily supported scientific capacity building through programmes funded by DFID and run with other bodies, such as the British Council and the ESRC. DFID has actively pursued a research capacity strengthening agenda over the past decade and a half, with funding focussed on programmes and centres, rather than individual projects, and a growing emphasis on South-South collaboration, and capacity-building as an objective.

5. Though capacity building activities were identified as "an area of weakness" by the Science and Technology Committee’s 2004 report on The Use of Science in UK international development policy, we believe that a large part of their limited success has been due to the complex nature of capacity building, and the difficulties inherent within this, rather than being solely the result of failings on the part of DFID. However, there are a number of ways in which support for capacity building can be improved.

6. Long-term, sustainable approaches should be developed as opposed to short term solutions. Building capacity is by definition a long term and multi-layered endeavour, particularly for institutions and research cultures where initial capacity is low. However, DFID has traditionally adopted a more short-term outlook.

7. The UK Government should make strengthening research capacity a more integral part of its development work. DFID’s main priority is poverty alleviation, and the short-term measures frequently associated with this are often at odds with the need to develop long-term strategies for fostering sustainable research cultures and developing capacity. Approaches should take account of the contribution which a strong, local research base could make to poverty alleviation in the longer-term. Developing country researchers need to be involved in identifying and tackling problems in their communities; the development of well trained and knowledgeable people in enabling local research environments which can produce locally-generated data and analysis required to inform evidence-based policy making at the national and regional level needs to be the focus of greater development efforts.

8. Smaller grants should be made available for capacity building activity. Large programmes can struggle to maintain coherence and focus in their project designs, and the pattern of making fewer, larger consortia grants reduces the different points of view around development theory and policy. An introduction of smaller grants (around £200k), following the Social Science Research Council model in the USA, would also better support the contribution made by SSH, which typically benefits from a smaller, more participative, project scale. Furthermore, smaller scale projects are more likely to secure the involvement and leadership of researchers within developing countries, given that the low levels of administration available to them often precludes their engagement with larger projects.

9. Application procedures for schemes involving developing countries should be simplified. Current processes have earned criticism for being vastly over-complex and for serving as a deterrent to good potential applicants in developing countries. The procedures used by the Leverhulme Trust, the Humboldt Foundation and the British Academy, are suggested as alternatives.

What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries?

10. Any effective model for supporting research capacity in developing countries will need to take into account the interdependence between the three levels of capacity building, as referred to by DFID [3] : Individual (the development of researchers to undertake research); Organisational (developing the capacity of organisations to manage and sustain themselves) and Institutional (changing the context and the resource base in which research is undertaken).

11. An approach which does not provide support at all three levels is unlikely to yield success. Support targeted at individual researchers may produce quick results, but without the appropriate organisational frameworks to make research careers attractive, the individual is likely to leave the organisation for a better one, often in the global North, causing a loss of local capacity and propagating brain-drain. Similarly, any approach which focuses on improving organisational capacity will fail unless the individuals operating within the organisation are fully involved in the process. Support at the institutional level is also crucial, and local ownership of activity is an important factor here. External funding for capacity building is unlikely to produce results if there is a lack of support from the partner country, or if it cannot overcome local problems which make it difficult to undertake research.

12. Mechanisms for supporting research capacity will also need to be flexible to take into account the complex conditions within which capacity building occurs, particularly within the fragile states which represent 20 of DFID’s 27 priority countries. Funders should be prepared for experiments that fail, and for programmes and projects which may need to be adjusted over the course of their duration.

13. In cases where research capacity is developed through North-South-South collaborations, funders should recognise the importance of language capacity in understanding the scientific needs of developing countries, as well as the larger issues of inter-cultural understanding. As an example, many clinical trials now take place in developing countries where community consent, rather than individual consent, is an issue.

14. The British Academy advocates an approach which follows the recommendations made in the Nairobi Report and in the forthcoming Foundations for the Future report, and which focuses on the support of research cultures through better governance, communities and networks, and a focus upon early-career researchers. As with the multiple levels of capacity building, these issues are fundamentally inter-connected and require even attention and a holistic view involving a number of linked forms of support:

· Governance: As argued in the Nairobi Report, "New money for research can only be provided if there is confidence in the ability of institutions to manage it and to deliver good research". Structures, systems and governance all need to be coordinated to provide the best framework for supporting and developing research practices within institutions.

· Communities and Networks: South-South exchange and collaboration is essential to building self-sustaining communities of research excellence. Few institutions in developing countries have the capacity to support full programmes of research, and an approach which encourages the linking of existing capacity, and which makes use of institutional hubs as appropriate, is needed.

· Early-career Researchers: In many developing countries, an ageing professoriate, together with more attractive prospects for researchers overseas, has led to a shortage of capable researchers at the early career level. A concentration of support for the next generation of academics is critical, but as the Foundations for the Future report argues, "it is vital that these investments in people are designed to strengthen the wider research base in universities and their faculties and departments." Support for the individual needs to be embedded within organisation frameworks, in order to begin to regenerate the ‘academic core’ of an institution. [4]

15. Through the International Partnership and Mobility scheme, the British Academy has designed a model for supporting research capacity development which seeks to address the issues raised above. By requiring organisational ownership from the partner developing country, the scheme aims to impact on organisational structures and systems for doing research. Intra-regional collaboration is integral to the scheme, as is the involvement of early career researchers. The scheme also gives valuable experience to British researchers in improving their understanding of research cultures overseas. Though modest in scale, the scheme has had demonstrable success in building capable, self-sustaining research teams, the majority of which have gone on to submit successful bids for funding on a far greater scale.

How does the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the scientific capacity building activities it supports? Is further assessment or oversight required?

16. As capacity building is complex in its very nature, the monitoring and evaluation of its effectiveness is equally so. As a long-term endeavour, capacity building is unlikely to yield the short-term impact which best fits existing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems. Capacity building is not a "stable target", and the M&E approach must be "flexible enough to adapt to all the changes inherent in CB, and must ensure that learning is captured" [5] . Recognising these difficulties, we welcome DFID’s efforts to develop appropriate M&E procedures and to conduct internal reviews of its capacity building record.

17. However, we believe that DFID should be more transparent in its evaluation methods, and should make greater efforts to make the results of its M&E known. It is our experience that there is a lack of awareness within the research community about what DFID is doing in this area, and greater transparency and communication would serve to redress this. Furthermore, the sharing of lessons learned - both success factors and, equally importantly, what has not worked – is beneficial for the research community, funders and intermediaries to build collectively on experience and improve future research capacity initiatives.

What role does DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser play in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies?

18. The role of DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) performs a vital function in ensuring ministers and policy-makers take decisions based on the best available evidence. While the current CSA comes from a natural sciences background we would highlight the need to take into consideration perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.

19. The British Academy welcomes the more integrated role for the CSA within DFID, which we believe has resulted in a greater contribution on his part in the development and assessment of capacity building policies. We commend the CSA’s regular meetings with ministers, and maintain the value of ensuring communication between the CSA and their Department.

20. However, we have found that there is again a lack of understanding within the research community about the role played by the Chief Scientific Adviser. We would recommend that the Chief Scientific Adviser develop a more transparent way of taking advice from UK academics working with researchers in the developing world, in order to fully benefit from the wealth of expertise available. As noted in our September submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology’s inquiry to investigate the role and function of departmental CSAs, the national academies are uniquely placed to support the development of greater understanding between CSAs and academics, and the British Academy is especially willing to play its part in supporting cross-disciplinary expertise to government that will supplement the expertise of the CSAs.

How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors?

21. The co-ordination of the many capacity building activities across different sectors is crucial to creating greater impact and effectiveness. There is a wide range of different activity taking place at different levels, including the work undertaken by the national academies and learned societies.

22. The role played by organisations such as UKCDS (UK Collaborative on Development Sciences) in providing a forum for research funders in the UK with an interest in development to share information, and in organising events to develop more co-ordinated approaches, has been of great importance in this area. The British Academy has benefitted greatly from its involvement with the UKCDS’ Research Capacity Building Group. We welcome further opportunities for collaboration and sharing with UK Government on research capacity initiatives as we take forward the Nairobi Process.

The British Academy, established by Royal Charter in 1902, champions and supports the humanities and social sciences across the UK and internationally. It aims to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement across the UK and internationally. As a Fellowship of over 900 UK scholars and social scientists, elected for their distinction in research, the Academy is an independent and self-governing organisation, in receipt of public funding. Views expressed in this submission are not necessarily shared by each individual Fellow.

The British Academy

December 2011

[1] British Academy/ ACU, 2009 The Nairobi Report: Frameworks for Africa-UK Research Collaboration in the Social Sciences and Humanities

[2] British Academy/ ACU, 2011 Foundations for the Future: Supporting the early careers of African researchers

[3] DFID, 2010 How to Note: A DFID practice paper

[4] British Academy/ ACU, 2011 , p.6

[5] DFID, 2010 p.16

Prepared 22nd December 2011