Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Science to the rescue: does investment in research drive international development?


Meanwhile, at the Kardashians...

Meanwhile, at the Kardashians…

The assertion that research/science* are crucial drivers of development is made so frequently that you could be forgiven for assuming that this is a proven fact. However, having read tens if not hundreds of books, reports and papers about science and international development, I have been struck by the distinct lack of evidence presented to back up the link. I have noticed that authors try to trick us into thinking there is evidence in a couple of ways. Firstly, they often quote eminent, famous or glamorous figures who say that research is crucial for development – and present that as if it is evidence. Alternatively, they will present anecdotes of where research has led to positive changes for poor people and use that to conclude that overall research must be a good thing. This may appear compelling at first, but I can’t help thinking that if I wanted to make the case for gambling, I could probably find quite a number of people whose lives had been improved by winning the lottery – and I am not sure anyone would accept that as good evidence that gambling is overall a great idea.

For me, the question we need to ask is not can research ever lead to good outcomes – but rather, on average, does investment in research lead to better development outcomes than investing an equivalent amount of funds in an alternative intervention?

Luckily for you, DFID has recently produced a literature review which attempted to capture the evidence relating to that question – and even better, I was the lead author. And so, I thought I would write a series of blogs summarising the paper.

The starting point for the lit review was to understand how people think research leads to socio-economic development. To uncover this, research policy documents from developing country governments and major development donors were examined – and informal discussions were held with key actors in the sector. Four common justifications for investing in research to drive development emerged: research was proposed to drive economic growth; to improve human capital; to generate new products and technologies that benefit the poor; and to support evidence-informed policy and practice. Over the next few blogs, I will look at each of these proposed pathways and summarise what the evidence tells us.

It will probably come as no surprise to readers that the answer to the research question I pose above is ‘sometimes’. But the evidence on this topic reveals that the links between research and socioeconomic development are fascinating, complicated and, occasionally, very much at odds with conventional wisdom.

If you want to get subsequent blogs direct to your email just click the ‘follow blog by email’ button on the top right of this post. And if you are too impatient to wait for further blogs, you can go ahead and read the full paper here!

Part 2 is now available here.

*I’ll use these terms interchangeably in this series of blogs


8 thoughts on “Science to the rescue: does investment in research drive international development?

  1. Great post. I’ve noticed a similar rhetorical trick performed by those in the science community who like to make the case that curiosity-driven science is vital to economic development in advanced economies. They first talk about the role of innovation in economic development, and the importance of R&D as a driver of innovation. Then suddenly switch to talking about fundamental science as if it were synonymous with R&D. Hey presto! Yet most R&D is about as far from fundamental science as it is possible to get and the evidence we have suggests technological innovation is only rarely driven by or dependent on fundamental insights. Which is not to say it is not vitally important for other reasons!

  2. Pingback: Science to the rescue: the big tech transfer myth | kirstyevidence

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  4. Pingback: Science to the rescue: human capital | kirstyevidence

  5. Pingback: Science to the rescue: new products and technologies | kirstyevidence

  6. Pingback: Science to the rescue: evidence-informed policy | kirstyevidence

  7. Pingback: Science to the rescue: doing the sums | kirstyevidence

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