Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Science to the rescue: human capital


To recap, I am running a series of blogs summarising the recent DFID literature review on the impact of research on international development. If you want to start at the beginning click here. Today I will explore the second pathway by which people think research leads to development outcomes – via contributions to human capital. Please note that for the purposes of the review, the term human capital was used to refer to the knowledge, skills, attitudes and competencies present in individuals in a population.

Building human capital was a less common justification given for investment in research amongst the policy documents examined – however, it was mentioned by some donors and is implicit in the funding decisions of others; many donors acknowledge (correctly) that higher education is an important driver of socioeconomic development and therefore invest considerable sums of money in it. However, a great deal of their support goes towards carrying out research – as opposed to towards teaching provision. This is justified by the widespread view that high quality providers of higher education need to also be producers of high quality research.

human capital

Could it really be this simple?

However, this axiom of the university sector does not appear to stand up to scrutiny. Econometric analysis from high income countries finds almost no link between quality or quantity of research output and teaching quality of academics. A UK government report from 2004 which summarised the research literature concluded:

“The evidence gathered for this document suggests that research and quality teaching are not contradictory roles. However, we cannot conclude from the information at hand that the link is strongly positive.”

So while higher education provision is a crucial driver of human capital and thereby an important contributor to growth (see this paper for more details), investing in research is probably not the best way to improve higher education.

Having said that, involvement in research can lead to human capital gains in other ways unrelated to higher education provision. The technical skills which are developed by carrying out research will be necessary for the establishment of many industries and services in areas including biotechnology, civil engineering and statistics. Furthermore, as mentioned in the previous post, there is evidence that having staff who can understand, learn from and adapt technologies from elsewhere is a crucial driver of industry growth. There are also many (myself included!) who argue that the critical thinking capacities which researchers develop can have far more wide-reaching impacts on society since a large proportion of people trained in research eventually leave academia. This has the potential to contribute to, for example, improved problem solving capacity of decision makers and increased ability of the public to scrutinise their leaders.

Finally, and importantly, investing in research develops thematic experts who can influence public opinion and advise on key policy topics. My blog on Monday will deal with what impact research results have on policy and practice. But an additional underrecognised way in which research can contribute to policy/practice is via the experts it ‘breeds’. Many global thought leaders, from both the north and the south, are current or previous researchers – consider for example Ghanaian economist George Ayitteh, Indonesian political scientist Anies Baswedan, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo, Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot, Kenyan agricultural scientist Calestous Juma, Indian neuroscientist V.S.Ramachandran and, not to forget, the current Chief Scientific Advisor to DFID (i.e. my boss!), Chris Whitty. These individuals, and many others, have had significant impacts on policies and practice above and beyond the direct impacts of their research outputs and they would not have been able to do this if they had not been able to secure funding for their reserach

It is worth noting that the human capital discussed above may not be developed just by providing research funding. There are considerable gaps in research capacity in many low-income countries and specific efforts will be needed to build these. In particular, in some locations, there is low capacity amongst senior researchers to mentor and develop more junior reserachers so the traditional system by which capacity is built is failing. In such cases, in order to build up capacity, specific research capacity building interventions may be needed. I am aware that research capacity building has tended to get a bad name in recent years – however, I suspect that this may be due to the fact that it has been done so badly rather than the fact that it is a bad idea per se! Finding approaches which successfully build both the types of skills mentioned above must be a priority for research funders. Anyway, I have recently written a series of blogs on just this topic so please check it out starting here and I will resist the temptation to witter on about it again in this blog!

Coming up tomorrow, does research drive devleopment throught the creation of new products and technologies…

Part 4 available here.



3 thoughts on “Science to the rescue: human capital

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

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

  3. Pingback: Impact via infiltration | kirstyevidence

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