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Reflections on the relevance of research for development

“The last time we had a big agricultural breakthrough was the Asian Green Revolution.” Delegates to the 3rd International Forum on Water and Food were asked by Bharat Sharma, a senior researcher working with the Ganges and Nile basin, “How do we bring about a second revolution?”

It was a grounded and pithy way of summarising the challenge that CPWF researchers and partners struggled with during an interactive panel debate on the relevance of research-for-development. In other words, how do scientists bridge the gap between research and impact?

According to Dr Simon Cook, the answer is to let research be guided by three core principles: credibility, relevance, and legitimacy. Science is often credible, but it can move too slowly to be relevant, and lack the engagement with stakeholders necessary to be legitimate. The key, he and others contended, was “who we bring with us.”

Unfortunately, according to many Forum participants, the current structure of research has perverse incentives that actually obstruct the development of credible, relevant, and legitimate outputs.

Scientists lamented that the current paradigm emphasizes short timelines and the importance of scholarly publication over demonstrable impact. Grantors and research institutes too often neglect to monitor and evaluate, much less reward, the influence of research on policy and actions on the ground.

Visible proof of this profound underinvestment can be witnessed in the lack of widespread adoption of known technological solutions— the “yield gap.” Poor engagement with policy-makers and stakeholders can limit the influence of research-for-development. Weak market institutions, or deficient infrastructure, for instance, can lead to post-harvest losses, which represent about 40 percent of a crop in developing countries. A paradigmatic shift in how we conceive scientists’ roles is therefore necessary.

Yet even in the absence of such structural change, some promising pathways for good research were identified.

A Mekong representative talked about tools for knowledge management and methodologies for measuring policy impact. A South African researcher implored the audience to reframe thinking of research as also a long-term investment in the young professionals engaged in it—people who represent the global future. Another scientist discussed the possibility of demand-driven research, in which extended interfacing with needy populations and important policy-makers prompted research grants.

A panelist discussed the need to “expand the definition of research” to, for instance, invest more in community-based participatory research in which robust data is produced at the same time that local capacities are enhanced. Finally, the example of cell phones and information communication tools for rural and agricultural use was raised—providing an example of how the lines between research-for-development and market-driven-research are increasingly blurring for the benefit of society at large.

In all cases, though, the expert panel and audience agreed that for research-for-development to be meaningful, it must communicate its outputs and advocate its solutions. As the debate moderator and South African journalist Colleen Dardagan said “We need to make research more sexy.”

By Charlotte Lau

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