Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Science to the rescue: the big tech transfer myth

This is part 2 of a series of blogs – read part 1 here.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, DFID’s recent lit review on links between science and development started by figuring out how people think science leads to development outcomes. By far the most common justification for investment in research given by developing country policy makers was its expected contribution to economic growth. The Nigerian Science, Technology and Innovation Policy is typical of many in stating:

“Specifically, the new [Science, Technology and Innovation] Policy is designed to provide a strong platform for science, technology and innovation engagements with the private sector for the purpose of promoting sound economic transformation that is citizen centred”

This focus is not likely to surprise anyone who has attended conferences related to science and international development; huge faith is put into Science, Technology and Innovation as drivers of economic development. If evidence is required to back this up, the example of the Asian Tiger economies, which invested in research and subsequently saw unprecedented growth, is frequently cited. For example, this recent communique from the Governments of Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda states:

“Inspired by the recent success of the Asian Tigers, We, the African governments, resolve to adopt a strategy that uses strategic investments in science and technology to accelerate Africa’s development into a developed knowledge-based society within one generation.”

If pressed on how research will lead to growth, it is typical to hear statements based broadly on endogenous growth theory: research will lead to new knowledge which will contribute to private sector development which will lead to growth.

So, what does the evidence tell us?

Well for a start, contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence to suggest that public investment in research was a major factor in the economic development of the Asian Tigers. Theories about what did cause this ‘development miracle’ abound but they can be broadly split into two categories. There are those who believe that increased growth was simply due to increased financial investments in the economy – and clearly this camp does not think that public investment in research played much of a role. Then there are those who believe that ‘knowledge’ was a key factor in explaining the rapid growth. At first glance this theory seems consistent with those who advocate for public investment in research to stimulate growth – but when you delve deeper you see that even this latter camp does not suggest that publicly-funded research knowledge was a major driver of growth. In fact, detailed case studies suggest that knowledge which drove growth was accumulated mainly through learning from the processes and technologies of more developed economies and gradually developing in-house R&D capabilities.

A world bank paper from 1999 summarises the findings of case studies from a range of ‘Asian Tiger’ firms as follows:

“. . . firm histories provide details of a complex interactive process in which. . . importers furnished some knowledge of production engineering. . . [Firms] were forced to constantly reduce cost through improving productivity.”

Of course just because public investment in research did not lead to past economic transformations doesn’t mean that it can’t do so in the future. There are many examples of initiatives specifically aimed at stimulating economic growth through publicly-funded research. Perhaps the most well-known – and popular – intervention is the establishment of a ‘science park’. These are generally property developments located near universities which aim to support technology start-ups and companies which ‘spin off’ from the university. They aim to emulate successful technology hubs in the USA, in particular Silicon Valley. The idea is that research in the university will lead to products and technologies which will be commercialised by start-up companies located in the science park.

There has been an explosion of science parks in emerging and developing countries. However, the evidence of their success is less abundant. Beyond a few high profile science parks linked to world-leading universities, there is little evidence that science parks actually succeed in supporting the commercialisation of university-generated research results; studies of science parks from both high-income and middle-income countries demonstrate an almost complete lack of technology transfer from universities to firms. Firms do report some advantages to location in science parks including access to information and informal linkages with academic colleagues. However there is little evidence that firms perform better in science parks than if they were located elsewhere.

In a 2004 article, Professor Stuart Macdonald of the University of Sheffield and Yunfeng Deng of Qingdao National Hi-Tech Industrial Zone describe science parks in developing countries as ‘pure cargo cult’ – aiming to superficially emulate Silicon Valley without creating any of the underlying factors which were necessary for its success. They conclude:

“. . .despite all the enthusiasm, there is little evidence that science parks work as their supporters say, and growing evidence that they do not.”

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Other interventions to drive economic development by supporting technology transfer are not much more promising. Technology transfer offices have been set up in many universities world-wide – however, the evidence shows that the vast majority of such offices work at a loss. In fact, patenting and licensing of academic research knowledge only generates significant income for the very top tier (i.e. the top few percent in global rankings) of universities internationally. A 2005 (paywalled) paper by University of Cape Town academic Dr Anthony Heher, which aims to draw conclusions for developing countries from university licensing data from wealthier economies, concludes:

“Without a well-funded, high quality research system, it is unlikely that a technology transfer programme will make any significant contribution to economic development. It is also not clear that any other country can simply emulate performance of the USA in deriving benefit from technology transfer due to differing social and economic conditions.”

Given this, it seems unlikely that technology transfer from universities is likely to have significant impact on economic development in most developing countries in the short to medium term. In fact, there is evidence that this is unrealistic even in developed countries. A recent article by Times science columnist Matt Ridley concluded that:

“The idea that innovation happens because you put science in one end of the pipe and technology comes out the other end goes back to Francis Bacon, and it is largely wrong.”

There is one silver lining to the evidence on public research and economic growth – there is good evidence that the capacity to use research is an important factor in driving economic growth. And that fact leads neatly on to tomorrow’s blog which will focus on human capital.

Part 3 now available here.


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


Nerds without borders – Beth Scott

Today’s nerd is a colleague of mine from the Department of International Development – the most excellent (and only occasionally scary) Beth Scott…

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?

I couldn't persuade Beth to give me a photo of her so I have drawn a beautiful portrait of her!

I couldn’t persuade Beth to give me a photo of her so I have drawn a beautiful portrait of her. Luckily, I think she will agree that it is an excellent likeness.

Just because I’m an anthropologist/behavioural scientist do NOT tell me I am ‘not a proper scientist’…Science A-levels, followed by a BA (Anthropology) and then an MSc (Control of Infectious Diseases) and a long stint as a Research Fellow, I do qual and quant work and am probably best described as a bit of a mixed up scientist, or maybe I’m the equivalent to ambi-dextrous? And confession time…I’m a total monitoring and evaluation geek – don’t design your metrics right and you won’t deliver an effective intervention.

2. What do you do now?
I’m a ‘Health Advisor’ in DFID working in a team that commissions international health research, from the development of new drugs through to systems-based research to improve healthcare delivery in less-developed countries.

3. What has research got to do with international development?
Everything – I mean, do you simply make up your interventions and hope they work? Research is critical to telling us what works, how it works, informing programme design and delivery, measuring impact etc etc. It’s just that people find the word ‘research’ scary (and the words monitoring and evaluation even scarier) and we have to find other ways to describe what we’re doing sometimes.

4. What have you been up to recently?
All sorts. I’ve spent a weekend sitting in a dark hotel room near Chales de Galle airport, at a Research Programme Consortium Partners’ meeting as they bash out a new cross-country research project; there were a couple of days at the Product Development Partnerships Funders Group hearing about all sorts of wonderful advancements in drug and diagnostics discovery for malaria and neglected tropical diseases; and I’ve launched a call for a programme of implementation research to improve the delivery of integrated neglected tropical disease control programmes on the ground.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

You’ve got to spend time overseas and make the time to really understand the reality of people’s lives on the ground. Always remain focussed on the impact you are hoping to having rather than starting with ‘what’ you want to do (outcomes rather than inputs driven).

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
I’m off to scare people for the weekend. Literally. I will don a big black cape and a mask and jump out of the shadows at people as they travel through the ‘Scaresville’ experience at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk. A brilliant way to unwind and offload stress at the end of a busy period at work 🙂

Read the other interviews: 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.


Nerds without borders – Alex Ademokun

Today’s nerd is my friend and former colleague Alex Ademokun (who can be found on twitter as @AAlex_A)…


Dr Alex Ademokun – attempting to hide his deep nerdiness behind some cool shades

I am an immunologist which means I have an interest in understanding how the body fights infections or other unpleasant surprises.  I have a BSc in Biochemistry, a Masters in Immunology and PhD in Molecular Immunology.

My PhD focused on understanding how the regulation of certain types of genes affects our ability to fight infections.  Basically what determines whether a particular gene is turned on or off during an immune response.

After my PhD I did a postdoc at Kings College London looking at why certain types of vaccines do not protect elderly people as well as we thought. We suggested that changes in the make-up of the immune system with age affect the ability of the elderly to respond to certain vaccines.

2. What do you do now?

I am the Programme Manager, Evidence-Informed Policy Making (EIPM) at INASP and Director of the VakaYiko Consortium.  INASP supports global availability, access, production and use of research for development with a strong emphasis on the global.

The programme I manage, EIPM, is focused very much on the last mile of that process, the use of research by policy makers to achieve development goals.  We do this by providing training to policy makers and their staff in how to understand and use research.  For instance providing the skills needed to know where to get reliable data on malaria prevention options; or to understand the limits of different types of research methods; or the scientific consensus on climate change.

We recognise that policies are made by considering a number of factors but advocate for research evidence to be a key one of those factors.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

From the obvious fact that scientific research can help tackle the biggest global challenges like climate change, pandemics, cybercrime etc. to the fact that there is increasing interest in using scientific methodologies to understand how development programmes work. Research has got everything to do with development.

Finding relevant solutions to the issues I just mentioned requires research into new technologies but research is also important to solve less ‘global’, more ‘local’ issues which do not make mainstream headlines.

For example diarrhoea related deaths are a major problem in India and other countries.  There are many ways to prevent this not least immunisation programmes and water purification programmes.  There are of course many challenges to delivering these solutions in practice including logistics and compliance.  In a recent report, scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras demonstrate the potential for a cheap affordable water filter system that can purify water of the most common bacteria and prevent thousands of bacteria related deaths.  It is estimated that such a device will cost $2.50 a year to run including the cost of the device and the running cost.

From the practical to perhaps the more academic end there is increasing interest in applying rigorous research methodologies to understand which development approaches are more likely to work in a particular context.  However issues arise when we transfer approaches from say the natural sciences to development which as an area has been more comfortable with social science methods.  The approaches are sometimes misunderstood or applied inappropriately leading to a pushback against scientific methods.  But here I think there is an opportunity for scientists with a strong understanding of research methods to play a role by communicating how these methods can be better used and supporting those that want to have more empirical basis for making decisions.

Other ways science impacts on development are by increasing the proportion of the population that are critical and questioning within a society and contributing to economic development by providing new knowledge which can generate new products.

4. What have you been up to recently?

I have been very busy getting a new and exciting project off the ground!  I mentioned earlier that I am Director of the VakaYiko consortium.  VakaYiko is a partnership of five organisations to build the skills needed to use research in Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In Ghana, we work with the Ghana Information Network for Knowledge Sharing (GINKS) to develop a course in Skills for Evidence Informed Policy Making.  In South Africa  the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the ODI work with ministries to systematise the sourcing and use of evidence and the Zimbabwe Evidence Informed Policy Network (ZEIPNET) works with departments to implement a professional development course for Civil Servants and start a series of public policy dialogues on the evidence around key policy issues.

I have just returned from visits to the partner organisations and was lucky enough to meet a range of policy makers to hear what they are already doing to improve the use of evidence.  I was amazed by the level of support for EIPM in South Africa and how much has been done in the last five years to systematically look at the evidence around social issues.  There is clearly a lot more to do but seeing the interest from senior policy makers in this area is really encouraging and exciting.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

There are many ways to be involved in development.  The work INASP does providing mentorship for early career researchers in developing countries via AuthorAid is one way to use your skills and knowledge to support development.  Have a look at the website and sign up as a mentor!

Apart from the plug, development is a wide area; it’s a bit like saying you are interested in science or art.  My suggestion is to start by trying to understand what it is about development that interests you.  Is it something specific like availability of clean water, or primary school education?  Is it something geographic like development in Peru? Or is it a combination of both, for example, education outcomes for children in India?

My interest in development started with wanting to support research output from Sub-Saharan Africa and from there grew to become an interest in the role of research in development more broadly.  It will almost certainly evolve again as I am exposed to more challenges.   But at the start it reflected where I am from, what I had experienced, what I did as a scientist and where I felt I could contribute something.  These may not be the same combinations for you but you should start by asking yourselves these why/where types of questions.

More generally, the skills you need as a scientist – critical thinking, a questioning nature, a desire to understand how and why things work are important skills that a have a place in development at all levels.  There are many ways to use these skills from straight forward research into development issues to measuring the impact of programmes or supporting others that want to develop those skills.

Whatever approach you take into development, remember that it will necessarily involve a job change so be prepared learn from others, work your way up and always try to remember why you moved in the first place.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?

If you haven’t seen the ‘No woman, no drive’ video, it combines comedy, a song I love and a serious message about the way women are viewed in society while making you smile.

Check out previous blogs in this series: 1, 2, 3 and 4.


Nerds without borders – Anna Paterson

Today we are moving into political nerdiness with political scientist, Anna Paterson.


Dr Paterson – a political scientist who believes in getting her hands dirty

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist/researcher are you?I’m a political scientist who has ended up with a focus on fragile and conflict-affected countries. I’m mostly involved in applied research so I do feel that I’m often on the more ‘quick and dirty’ end of the nerd spectrum. I’ve worked in political research for almost my whole career, first in the private sector then as a Research Analyst in the Foreign Office and then for nearly two years as a field researcher for an NGO in Afghanistan.  After that I did a PhD looking at Russian approaches to, and the regional dimensions of, security and development in Afghanistan. I got to know a lot of former Soviet ‘technical experts’ who had worked in Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s and became interested in the role political ‘experts’ have played in aid, development and security then and now.

More recently I worked for DFID as part of its evidence-based agenda, first as an ‘Evidence Broker’ in Research and Evidence Division and then as an Evaluation Adviser in Nigeria.

2. What do you do now?

I’m now an independent consultant, for my sins! I wanted to get back to the actual ‘doing’ of research and evaluation. I have worked and am working on a number of projects. Some of these are evaluations of programmes, including a Human Rights grantmaking programme in Nigeria, a programme that trains African Police to participate in African peacekeeping missions and a thematic evaluation of a donor country programme in Yemen. Some are more ‘researchy’ for example I’m just starting work on a research project on conflict and security in communities on the Afghan-Tajik border.

The job involves designing the research with the client, carrying out or overseeing data collection, analysing the data and producing reports. In some projects I’m part of a big team, in others it’s just me and another researcher. Juggling timings is a big issue and what I’ve realised is that in the types of countries I’m going to, everything tends to get delayed.

3. What has research got to do with international development?

I think where political science literature on conflict and fragility is concerned a lot of the research that’s being used in development is at the macro and theoretical level. So we have a lot of really good research and lots of debates about state-building, for example on ‘political settlements’ that are really important and that policymakers and practitioners are engaged with.

What we have less of is the data and research that helps us to understand what’s going on, and what will happen when we try to intervene, on the ground in conflict-affected countries. Often programmes in conflict-affected countries are working with bad or near-absent data and without evidence of what types of interventions work in what circumstances.  A lot of this is about supporting country systems for collecting data but if we’re going to intervene in conflict-affected countries we also need to do robust research at the intervention level not just in health in governance and peacebuilding interventions. In DFID I became really interested in rigorous Impact Evaluations, including Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), especially in my field – political science – where they are relatively new. I’m not saying that rigorous Impact Evaluations can or should be used for all intervention but I think we need more of them in conflict-affected contexts where it’s really important that we understand more about the impacts of interventions.

4. What have you been up to recently?

I’ve been on a feasibility study for a potential RCT of a community peacebuilding programme in Somalia . If it goes ahead I’ll be leading on the process evaluation and qualitative component of the evaluation, which is a really exciting role for a qualitative researcher. Good RCTs take qualitative research very seriously and are pretty good at mixing methods purposively. It’s been fascinating and challenging. There has been a lot of intense debate and we have had to take on board and deal with many very reasonable concerns. This is a real-world intervention which is similar to other types of interventions that are increasingly conducted at the community level aimed at armed violence reduction. It’s much harder to design an impact evaluation for a real world intervention that to design an intervention just for the purposes of an impact evaluation, which is the way some impact evaluations work. It requires more compromise and accommodation on the part of the implementers and the evaluators. But I would argue we need more of these types of evaluations. I know the debate about RCTs is very polarised. But if you think that we do need more of them, as I do, the steps that follow on from that are not straightforward. These evaluations are difficult to get off the ground. Some of them won’t work in the field. Those that do need to be very carefully designed and implemented especially in the context of conflict.  I hope this evaluation gets off the  ground and if it doesn’t I hope to have other opportunities to work on this kind of study.

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?

I’ve always liked the kind of research that gets you out into the field. I remember someone in my department when I did my PhD telling me that ‘political scientists don’t tend to go to the field that much.’ I think political scientists should get their hands dirty – especially when they’re young (which I’m not anymore!).

6. Tell us something to make us smile

I like the feminist social scientist Ann Oakley. She reminds us that robust data and evaluations are needed by women, vulnerable and marginalised groups more than anyone precisely because of power dynamics – to arm themselves against the arrogance of those in power who ‘are so prone to launch interventions without knowing their effects.’[1] I also like her because she said: ‘housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualization.’

[1] Oakley, Ann ‘Paradigm Wars: Some Thoughts on a Personal and Public Trajectory’ INT. J. SOCIAL RESEARCH METHODOLOGY, 1999, VOL. 2, NO. 3, 247 ± 254

Why not also check out episodes 1, 2 and 3?


Nerds without borders – Nhan Tran

Today’s nerd without borders is Nhan Tran of the World Health Organization. Take a look at
posts 1 and 2 as well.

Nhan Tran photo

Dr Nhan Tran – the best dressed man in global health?

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?
My training is in health systems research and a lot of my academic work previously focused on understanding how policy and decision-making processes are influenced and/or informed, how research can be used to inform the scale up of interventions, as well as how to establish and use surveillance systems and the data generated by those systems.

2. What do you do now?
I am Manager of the Implementation Research Platform, that is led by the Alliance for Health Policy & Systems Research within WHO.    Through the IRP, we are trying to support research that can help inform the implementation of effective health interventions—particularly those that can prevent maternal and child mortality.  In addition to supporting direct research, the IRP is also exploring innovative ways to strengthen the capacities of individuals such as programme managers who are directly responsible for implementation, to use data and evidence in their daily work.

One of the interesting things that we are doing is to try to facilitate greater engagement between those who conduct research, and those who can benefit from the knowledge and insights generated by the research.   This is especially important for implementation research as the work of the researchers is directly tied to the problems faced by implementers and there is thus a need to bring the two groups together.

As the Manager of the IRP, I oversee the implementation of the portfolio of activities carried out by partners.   As a platform that engages with global actors, I also have the task of establishing and maintaining linkages with a wide range of stakeholders including donor organizations, multi-lateral organizations, as well as local governments, to help coordinate and align priorities and approaches so that we as a global community can be more effective our efforts to improve health.

3. What has research got to do with international development?
I think research has a huge role in international development—though that role is changing.   Early on, there was a need for research to shed light on the disease burden and to identify trends to help inform where investments were needed.  Research was also needed to develop and test interventions that could be used in diverse contexts.   As a result of this work, we now have a good understanding of the health burden and equally important, we have among our arsenal of tools, evidence on numerous interventions that can help to prevent deaths and improve health, which is critical to development efforts.

While intervention research is still important, the more needed research is research that can help inform the implementation and scale up of these effective interventions and the strengthening of health systems.  This is why investments in health policy and systems research, including implementation research, is so important.  Without this research, we will not be able to optimize that benefits of the interventions and technologies that have been developed and tested.

What is important to note however, is that, unlike burden of disease studies or intervention research, the conduct of health policy and systems research must take place within real-world contexts and linked to policy and programme decision-making.  As research that is more oriented towards problem solving than the testing of a hypothesis, it must be linked to implementation processes and very importantly, it must engage implementers and other decision-makers.    It is only through a collaborative approach to research and decision-making that the challenges of implementation will be overcome.

4. What have you been up to recently?
We recently launched a guide to implementation research – Implementation Research for Health: A Practical Guide that is aimed at bridging the divide between researchers and decision-makers (including practitioners and implementers).  The guide speaks to the value of collaboration and provides framework for implementation research as a collaborative endeavour.

The Guide is available at: (

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?
Development is an evolving field and in order to succeed one has to be willing to evolve and change in order to be responsive to the needs of the field.  While having career targets and goals are important motivators and allow us to measure our own progress, its equally important to recognize that these targets and goals often change. Opportunities often arise when they are least expected and benefiting from such opportunities requires a willingness to sometimes deviate from the path that one has set.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
A husband feared his wife wasn’t hearing as well as she used to, and he thought she might need a hearing aid. Not quite sure how to approach her, he called the family doctor to discuss the problem. The doctor told him there is a simple informal test the husband could perform to give the doctor a better idea about her hearing loss.

“Here’s what you do,” said the Doctor. “Stand about 40 feet away from her and in a normal conversational speaking tone, see if she hears you. If not, go to 30 feet, then 20 feet, and so on until you get a response.”

That evening, the wife is in the kitchen cooking dinner, and the husband was in the den. He says to himself, “I’m about 40 feet away, let’s see what happens.” Then in a normal tone he asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

No response.

So the husband moves closer to the kitchen, about 30 feet from his wife and repeats, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Still no response.

Next he moves into the dining room where he is about 20 feet from his wife and asks, “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Again he gets no response.

So, he walks up to the kitchen door, about 10 feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”

Again there is no response.

So he walks right up behind her. “Honey, what’s for dinner? ”

“Ralph, for the FIFTH time, CHICKEN!”

Hope you enjoyed the post – tune in again tomorrow for another nerdy interview!


Nerds without borders – Juliette Mutheu

In part 2 of my series on scientists/researchers who work in international development (read part 1 here), I’d like to introduce you to Kenya’s First Lady of Science Communication (and closet science fiction fan), Juliette Mutheu…


Juliette has never allowed the extra thumb growing behind her left ear get in the way of her glamorous lifestyle.

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?
I am a biomedical-flavoured scientist, with sprinkles of epidemiology and population health ingredients. During my honours degree I carried out research on a Melbourne cohort examining the risk factors linked to developing osteoarthritis in people over 40 years of age. After my honours, I moved back to my country of origin, Kenya, and did some research investigating malaria admission of children under the ages of 14. This research involved visits to several district hospitals around Kenya to collect 20 years worth of inpatient malaria admission data and also visits to the local meteorological stations to collect data that would be used to investigate the relationship between weather patterns and malarial cases in young children. Further on we would look at various government interventions like introducing bed nets in communities and how this impacted on the admissions numbers, was this beneficial or not. I could go on but I will stop. Research can be very exciting and I love to talk about it.

2. What do you do now?
Currently I work at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) as the Science Communications and Policy Specialist. My job involves translating research evidence into easily comprehensible materials. I.e. take a paper or report and turn it around into a 2-page fact sheet or 4 page policy brief, contributing to the design and implementation of a communication and policy dialogue programme as well as managing the Institute’s website and social media platforms… twitter, facebook etc…

3. What has research got to do with international development?
Research for me is all about data and how we use that data. Data can be used to tell us a lot or provide a lot of information about a particular situation and how if we wanted to move from situation A (crappy health care, funds not being used strategically etc) to situation B (great health care for all, funds used to promote disease prevention or public health etc) we need to know what is the current situation. Research not only tells you where you are coming from… background of that situation, it also provides you with the current situation and further offers recommendations of how to tackle the problem and hopefully solve it and find yourself at Situation B. Development cannot happen without research really. If research was a person… I see it as an old (old here can be relative) wise man, experienced in the ways of the world and quite knowledgeable. Research is knowledge, it takes time to collect this knowledge and further takes time to be able to think about how this knowledge can be applied into existing contexts or situations. There are times in our personal lives that we go through this process of collecting information, thinking about it and then applying it… – you didn’t need to be a genius to do that?!

4. What have you been up to recently?
I recently moderated a session by HIVOS on the use of health data to inform policy and planning. I was seated with a panel of speakers, representatives from the Kenya Medical practitioners union; people with disabilities network, youth and development organisation and a patients’ rights activists foundation. These panellists just amazed me. I love great minds and problem solvers or people who just get on with solving problems. The thing that struck me the most was how quickly as a panel there seemed to be consensus that responsibilities should not only lie on governments or policymakers but also citizens. This was not at all surprising to me, working at AFIDEP, I quickly learnt how Kenya for example has some really good policy documents the problem is in implementing or putting into practice these policies. If you know Kenya well or have lived in Kenya for a while you will be familiar with the Swahili phrase: ‘Haki Yetu’ (Our Rights). An expression the public will chant when the government goes off the rails and it seems as though our rights are suddenly at peril. But to be honest do we really know our rights? Are we aware that we have good policies that are just waiting to be implemented and that we cannot rely on the government to do it all, i.e. we all demand for affordable and accessible health services for all… but am I at my specific locality finding out what needs to be done, how to facilitate/contribute to improvements and doing something about it?

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?
There is a very good reason why you are doing/did research. Simplistically put it’s for progress for growth, success, understanding and gaining a deeper knowledge of an issue. All these contribute to development. I personally, treasure communication, making connections and creating/exchanging ideas because I want to see progress happen. In development I find that it’s a lot of dialogue, communication, talking to people about the evidence; problems and solutions; what’s the latest data on a given situation and what do you need to do about it. Scientists already have some, if not most of these attributes so focus on the dialogue, being supportive and learning from best practices.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
I don’t know if this will make you smile… but I saw it on an organisation’s page and I just love it because I feel this should be the principles by which scientists and indeed development experts live by!

Go to the People
Live with them
Love them
Learn from them
Start with what they have
Build on what they know
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
the work is done
The people will say
We have done it ourselves

– Lao Tzu

Hope you liked the interview – watch out for more nerds without borders coming soon!


Nerds without borders!

Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from someone I had persuaded to give me their blood!

Me in a lab starting the process of extracting NK cells from the blood of some poor soul who I had accosted with a needle and an ethics form earlier that day.

This is the first in a series of blogs: each day this week, I will profile a scientist/researcher who works in the international development sector. And first up… it’s me!I started my career as a full-blown, lab-based, nerdy scientist. My PhD looked at how genetic variation in HIV affects which cells it can infect. I spent years of my life cutting up bits of tissue from people who had died while HIV-infected, extracting DNA from the cells and then figuring out what bits of HIV’s genetic code were associated with what cell types. After my PhD, I moved to working on immune response to Malaria. In this case, I worked on one particular cell – the sinisterly-named ‘Natural Killer Cells’ (NK cells for short). I looked at how different people’s NK cells responded to Malaria parasites. I became a real expert in this – I started being able to recognise people just by looking at a chart showing the distribution of proteins on the surface of their NK cells. I was briefly one of the world experts in the response of NK cells to pathogens. I even managed to sneak amusing (to nerds) sexual innuendos into journal articles on this topic.


This is a picture of one of my actual cells – not an NK cell but a Neutrophil in this case. l think it’s kind of cool to get the chance to see one of my own cells up-close and personal – and I also like the fact that it looks a bit like a baby elephant.

I really loved the challenge of scientific research. But I started to get a bit worried that I was not really doing anything to help people. I mean, I had gone into medical research because I thought it would be a way to improve the world. But as I continued to write grant applications making the case that NK cells might potentially play a role in responses to as-yet undiscovered vaccines, I started to feel increasingly frustrated with being so removed from helping actual people with actual problems.* This became particularly apparent when I got more and more into lecturing and mentoring students. I realised that I loved teaching and that being able to help someone – even if it was just to pass their immunology exams – was really important to me.

My career had always focussed on diseases of the developing world (before my PhD I had also done some work on tuberculosis so I had managed to dabble in all of the Big Three infectious diseases) and my work on malaria had also given me the chance to spend some time doing research in Africa. I started to feel more and more that rather than doing research to try to come up with answers which might potentially help people in the future, I wanted to support researchers in developing countries so that they would have the capacity to do the research and make use of the results themselves.

There has been some excellent blog-based advice for those who want to get into international development careers – see for example the series starting here from @rachelstrohm. But when I was an academic scientist who wanted to break into the development field, I felt there was very little specific guidance on potential career paths for me. I had some relevant skills – the ability to problem solve, an understanding of research, the ability to plan and implement projects – but I didn’t have the specific skills that were needed in the development field… and I didn’t know how to acquire them.

Luckily for me, around about the same time as I was thinking about moving fields, there seems to have been an increase in interest in the intersection between research and international development. I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue a career in this ‘micro-genre’. I first got a job working on research capacity building at the Wellcome Trust. From there, I moved to a job working with the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology supporting a capacity building scheme for scientific advice in the Ugandan parliament. From there I moved to INASP to head up a programme on Evidence-Informed Policy Making. And from that I moved to my current job leading the Evidence into Action team at the UK Department for International Development.

Now that I am working in this field, I come across loads of nerdy researchers like me. Some are still doing research (on topics more directly-related to development than mine had been); others work for development research funders; provide scientific advice to decision makers; or work to build research capacity in developing countries.

So, I decided I would carry out interviews with a few of the nerdy science/research types who have ended up working in international development to find out what their backgrounds are and how they ended up working where they do now. Starting on Monday, I will feature a new friend, colleague or maybe even frolleagues each day this week.

You can sign up for email updates on the top right of this page if you would like to get an email with each new post. I hope you enjoy them- and do please let me know via the comments if you are a fellow Nerd Without Borders!

*This by the way is not a criticism of lab-based scientists – it is probably more a reflection of my own short attention span. In fact, I met my supervisor from my malaria research days the other day and was delighted to hear that some of the work I had started has now developed into a stream of research directly looking at the role of NK cells in vaccines – so it wasn’t so implausible after all!


Take a look at parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.


Science and development – getting beyond the hyperbole…

I have a fairly short attention span so when I attend long international development meetings, I like to indulge in a little bit of conference bingo. For the un-initiated, this involves writing down a list of your favourite development clichés, and then giving yourself a point (and a healthy dose of smugness) every time someone mentions one of them. I like to include any mention of silos or capacity building, any statement about the GDP of (insert Asian country) once having been the same as the GDP of (insert African country), a statement about (insert developing country) not being poor but just being mismanaged, and, my favourite, a statement suggesting that science and technology are critical to development.

Given that I like science and I like development, you might expect me to like statements linking the two – but the reason it annoys me, is that when you then try to follow up and ask how science is going to lead to development, people often either get quite vague or give answers which are not really based on reality. It sometimes seems that the link between science and development is some kind of mantra which is backed up mainly by quoting other important people who have put it forward. I actually DO think that science can feed into development but I suspect that does not always happen in the ways people expect. I therefore believe that it is worth unpicking a little bit the causal pathways by which science can contribute to development.

So, let’s examine a few of the ways in which science might contribute to development.

1. Investment in science leads to economic growth

This is a commonly held assumption and is often cited by politicians as a reason for investing in science. However, the evidence on whether investment in scientific research is a valuable way to stimulate moneythe economy in developing countries is weak. One justification that I have heard many times is that countries such as Korea, which invested in science and technology subsequently saw economic growth. However, it is clear that there were many factors that led to Korea’s economic growth including major policy changes related to trade and thus there is no particular reason to assume that investment in science made all (or even any of) the difference. There are some studies from richer countries which have attempted to calculate the economic payback of investment in research, but there is little from developing countries. Furthermore, there is clearly not a binary decision between investment in research or not. Investment in poor research, as unfortunately is common in countries without robust processes for selecting high quality research, is very unlikely to lead to any economic growth. My suspicion is that the link between economic growth and investing in scientific research in most developing countries is a testable hypothesis, not a proven fact but I would be grateful if you know more about this topic and you would like to point me in the direction of some good relevant research.

tech2. Investment in research provides new tools and products which will benefit the poor

It is very seductive to think that scientific research will lead to new technologies which will save the world. Indeed there are some great examples of new products which have had a significant impact on developing countries – anti-retroviral treatment, polio vaccines and scuba rice are just a few amazing inventions. However, I think a degree of caution is required given that there are lots of existing ‘solutions’ to problems that are not currently being used. For example, we know how to treat many neglected tropical diseases, we know how to purify water and we know how to build roads that resist flooding – but we also know that none of these solutions are being universally adopted. For this reason, I do believe that finding new solutions to problems is important, but I think we must not forget that an equally big challenge is making sure that the solutions we have found are actually used.

3. Research will inform policy making

This is an area in which I feel that science – and scientific approaches – can really make a difference. However, I would still add some important caveats. The first is thateipm research information will only help policy makers to make better decisions if they are in fact motivated to make good decisions in the first place! If a policy maker is only interested in improving her own lot in life, they are unlikely to be motivated to use research information to improve life for the general public. Secondly, even if policy makers are motivated to improve conditions, they need to have a certain degree of evidence literacy to understand and interpret the implications of research evidence. Therefore, I think that efforts to promote evidence-informed policy need to consider the ‘demand-side’  – both the motivations of policy makers and their abilities to understand and use research.

spillover4. Spillover effects

This is perhaps the least discussed way in which science can impact on development, but I sometimes wonder if it might be the most important. What I mean by spillover effect is the general increase in scientific thinking that you get if you invest in research. This happens because some scientists will leave to enter new professions (journalism, politics etc.) and also because when you invest in research within academic institutions, you get a more research-literate faculty who in turn provide better training in scientific thinking to the students they are teaching. My hypothesis (and given the paucity of evidence, it is just a hypothesis albeit one which I suspect is true ;-)) is that the resultant critical thinking, questioning and problem solving skills could be a key factor in developing the human capital needed to run effective institutions and a populace more able to scrutinise policy makers.

I’m actually writing this blog in preparation for a talk I am giving next week so, do please do comment, enlighten me or even (politely) disagree – hopefully your input will improve my talk and thereby reduce the number of people playing conference bingo during it!

All photos courtesy of