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Investing aid money in research for impact – what’s needed?

The Newton Fund, with a £735 million budget to spend on collaborative research between the UK and countries that receive development aid, has become a substantial development research donor. Last month, a performance review found that it “does not have sufficient strategies and mechanisms in place to ensure that its spending is a good use of UK aid.”

The Newton Fund and the £1.6 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which runs in parallel with it represent a significantly increased investment of aid money in research. Both funds are housed in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and distributed through UK research councils and associated research bodies; and both are fully funded by official development assistance.

The Newton Fund’s explicit objective is to promote development impact. It also aims to strengthen the international standing of UK research institutions, positioning the UK as a global leader on research and innovation. Through a match-funding mechanism, it supports collaborative research, meaning a partnership between the UK and a country on the OECD DAC list.

Design of fund limits development effectiveness

The review, by independent aid watchdog ICAI, found that the Fund's "approach to allocating funds has been poorly suited to the primary objective of promoting development impact.” The majority of its resources were invested in partnerships involving middle-income countries where relationships were already established, and focused on support to individuals rather than investment in developing institutional capacity for research.

It also found no coherent approach to value for money, no monitoring and evaluation framework, and no support for cross-fund learning. It concluded with the strong suggestion that the Fund’s match-funding arrangement breaches the spirit of overseas development assistance, because it means that most of the Fund's resources stay in the UK.

These findings are particularly disappointing considering that an ICAI rapid review of GCRF in 2017 highlighted many similar challenges, implying that there is limited learning across the two funds, despite their being housed in the same government department.

However, the challenge for the Newton Fund is perhaps more fundamental than that of the GCRF.  The match-funding design of the fund limits its development effectiveness. Those middle-income countries that have national funding bodies for research and engage in the international development arena are not the ones where overseas development assistance for research is most needed.

More than this, the inherent tension between the two purposes of the fund - to raise the international standing of UK research institutions, and to achieve development impact - can only be resolved if research processes are properly scrutinised and reflected on, and the balance between research excellence and impact excellence is unpacked.

A closed system for research excellence

In the UK, specific standards for and expectations of research excellence are upheld and reinforced through current operating standards. These include, for example, the Research Excellence Framework and the incentives it creates, and our system of peer review for academic journals. These largely locate the power for recommending what research is funded or published in the hands of UK-based academics

Although some research councils have strengthened their links to development practitioners and academics based in the global south, and have included them in their funding review panels, this is by no means common practice. So these systems are relatively closed, and choices about what research is invested in and supported are made in the UK, based on what is valued within its research system. This can mean that more importance is placed on someone’s strong publication record than their experience in creating development impact.

But what about excellence in impact?

As I argued in a recent article, doing research that intends to have development impact needs approaches and standards that are different from those of mainstream UK-based perceptions of research excellence. These approaches and standards fundamentally challenge the way research funding decisions are currently made, the types of capacity that funds like Newton and GCRF invest in, and the way excellence is conceptualised. 

Rather than focusing only on the internal rigour of research and whether the findings have been published in a high-ranking academic journal, research for development impact needs to be ‘good enough’ to ensure that any claims made are appropriate and supported by the evidence generated. But also, and more importantly, it needs to intentionally strive for real-world change.

Impact can happen through the process of doing research  -  for example, through being empowering for those involved, enabling them to share their own ideas and knowledge, generating research findings that reflect different voices and perspectives. Or it can happen through being used by those who need to learn from it – other development practitioners or policymakers.

This is not to deny that there is a place for different types of research – research that is driven primarily by an interest in contributing to knowledge, rather than by a wish to achieve development impact.  But such research, which is not directly about development impact, should not be ODA funded.

Pathways to resolving the tension between research and impact

As the Newton Fund responds to this very critical review it will be important for the fund managers to consider three important areas.

  1. How to ensure that the dual purposes of the Fund complement each other. This involves re-envisioning the relationship between promoting UK research expertise and designing research for development impact. More participatory research design and agenda setting is needed, to enhance expertise in collaborative research; and recognition that impact looks different in different places.
  2. How to support long-term systemic capacity development. Research funding tends to be allocated to individual research projects, and investing in development impact requires change at a systemic level, shifting both how research is conceptualised, and how agendas are set. Could the Newton Fund think about different investment forms which focus on wider systemic capacity development, rather than individual career pathways which mirror UK incentives?
  3. How to build relationships with practitioners and capitalise on their expertise in understanding how development impact is created. Practitioners have extensive experience in how social change happens in the places where they work. How can the Newton Fund build on their understanding and integrate it into setting research priorities, thinking through what is understood by development impact within a research context, and collaborating to support design of development research has impact both through its process and its findings?

While this work is ongoing, we at Christian Aid - a practice-based organisation that does research, some it resourced by funds like Newton and GCRF - will continue to work on the other side of the equation, to:

  • Build the capacity of our staff and partners to engage critically with evidence and explore the value of research in our development interventions.
  • Model and build examples from practice in inclusive development research that is relevant, useful and used.

And we will continue communicate our learning on delivering excellence in both research and impact – to show that other ways are possible.