Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Impact via infiltration

Two blogs ago I linked to an article which I attributed to “the ever-sensible Michael Clements”. Shortly afterwards @m_clem tweeted:

.@kirstyevidence compares @JustinSandefur to @jtimberlake 🔥—but me, I’m “sensible”.Some guys got it, some don’t.

I mention this in part because it made me chortle but mainly because it prompted me to look back at that Justin Sandefur interview. And on re-reading it, I was really struck by one of Sandefur’s models for how research relates to policy:

My third model of what research has to do with development policymaking is borderline cynical: let’s call it a vetting model.  The result of your narrow little research project rarely provides the answer to any actual policy question.  But research builds expertise, and the peer review publication process establishes the credibility of independent scientific experts in a given field.  And that — rather than specific research results — is often what policymakers are looking for, in development and elsewhere.  Someone who knows what they’re talking about, and is well versed in the literature, and whose credentials are beyond dispute, who can come in and provide expert advice.

Since that interview was published, I wrote a literature review for DFID which looked at the impact of research on development. And, having spent months of my life scouring the literature, I am more convinced than ever that the Sandefur/Timberlake effect (as it will henceforth be known) is one of the main ways in which investment in research leads to change.

This pathway can be seen clearly in the careers of successful researchers who become policy makers/advisors. For example, within DFID, the chief scientist and chief economist are respected researchers. But the significant impacts they have had on policy decisions within DFID must surely rival the impacts on society they have had via their academic outputs?

And the case may be even stronger if you also examine ‘failed scientists’ – like, for example, me! The UK Medical Research Council invested considerable amounts of funding to support my PhD studies and post-doc career. And I would summarise the societal impact of my research days as… pretty much zilch. I mean, my PhD research was never even published and my post-doc research was on a topic which was niche even within the field of protozoan parasite immunology.

Undercover nerds: creating societal impact all around you?

Undercover nerds – surely the societal impact of all those current and former academics goes beyond their narrow research findings?

In other words, I wouldn’t have to be very influential within development to achieve more impact than I did in my academic career. My successful campaign while working at the Wellcome Trust to get the canteen to stock diet Irn Bru probably surpasses my scientific contributions to society! But more seriously, I do think that the knowledge of research approaches, the discipline of empirical thinking, the familiarity with academic culture – and, on occasion, the credibility of being a ‘Dr’ – have really helped me in my career. Therefore, any positive – or indeed negative – impact that I have had can partly be attributed to my scientific training.

Of course, just looking at isolated individual researchers won’t tell us whether, overall, investment in research leads to positive societal impact – and if so, whether the “S/T effect” (I’m pretty sure this is going to catch on so I have shortened it for ease) is the major route through which that impact is achieved. Someone needs to do some research on this if we are going to figure out if it really is a/the major way in which research impacts policy/practice.

But it’s interesting to note that other people have a similar hypothesis: Bastow, Tinkler and Dunleavy carried out a major analysis of the impact of social science in the UK* and their method for calculating the benefit to society of social science investments was to estimate the amount that society pays to employ individuals with post-grad social science degrees.** In other words they assumed that the major worth of all that investment in social science was not in its findings but in the generation of experts. I think the fact that the authors are experimenting with new methodologies to explain the value of research that go beyond the outdated linear model is fabulous.

But wait, you may be wondering, does any of this matter? Well yes, I think it does because a lot of time and energy are being put into the quest to measure the societal impact of research. And in many cases the impact is narrowly defined as the direct effect of research findings and/or research derived technologies. The recent REF impact case studies did capture more diverse impacts including some that could be classified within the S/T™ effect. But I still get the impression that such indirect effects are seen as secondary and unimportant. The holy grail for research impact still seems to be linear, direct, instrumental impact on policy/practice/the economy – despite the fact that:

  1. This rarely happens
  2. Even when we think this is happening, there is a good chance that evidence is in fact just being used symbolically
  3. Incentivising academics to achieve direct impact with their research results can have unintended and dangerous results

Focussing attention on the indirect impact of trained researchers, not as an unimportant by-product but as a major route by which research can impact society, is surely an important way to get a more accurate understanding of the benefits (or lack thereof) of research funding.***

So, in summary, I think we can conclude that that Justin Sandefur is quite a sensible bloke.

And, by the way, have any of you noticed how much Michael Clemens resembles George Clooney?


* I have linked to their open access paper on the study but I also recommend their very readable book which covers it in more detail along with loads of other interesting research – and some fab infographics.

** Just to be pedantic, I wonder if their methodology needs to be tweaked slightly – they have measured value as the cost of employing social science post-grad degree holders but surely those graduates have some residual worth beyond their research training? I would think that the real benefit would need to be measured as the excess that society was willing to pay for a social science post-grad degree holder compared to someone without..?

*** Incidentally, this is also my major reason for supporting research capacity building in the south – I think it is unrealistic to expect that building research capacity is going to yield returns via creation of new knowledge/technology – at least in the short term. But I do think that society benefits from having highly trained scientific thinkers who are able to adapt and use research knowledge and have influence on policy either by serving as policy makers themselves or by exerting evidence-informed influence.


Beneficiary feedback: necessary but not sufficient?

One of the things I love about working in DFID is that people take the issue of beneficiary* feedback very seriously. Of course we don’t get it right all the time. But I like to think that the kind of externally designed, top-down, patronising solutions that are such a feature of the worst kind of development interventions (one word: BandAid**) are much less likely to be supported by the likes of DFID these days.

In fact, beneficiary feedback is so central to how we do our work that criticising it in any way can been seen as controversial; some may see it as tantamount to saying you hate poor people! So just to be clear, I think we can all agree that getting feedback from the people you are trying to help is a good thing. But we do need to be careful not to oversell what it can tell us. Here are a couple of notes of caution:

1. Beneficiary feedback may not be sufficient to identify a solution to a problem

problem cakeIt is of course vital to work with potential beneficiaries when designing an intervention to ensure that it actually meets their needs. However, it is worth remembering that what people tell you they need may not match what they will actually benefit from. Think about your own experience – are you always the best placed person to identify the solution to your problems? Of course not – because we don’t know what we don’t know. It is for that reason that you consult with others – friends, doctors, tax advisors etc. to help you navigate your trickiest problems.

I have come across this problem frequently in my work with policy making institutions (from the north and the south) that are trying to make better use of research evidence. Staff often come up with ‘solutions’ which I know from (bitter) experience will never work. For example, I often hear policy making organisations  identify that what they need is a new interactive knowledge-sharing platform – and I have also watched on multiple occasions as such a platform has been set up and has completely flopped because nobody used it.

2. Beneficiary feedback on its own won’t tell you if an intervention has worked

Evaluation methodologies – and in particular experimental and quasi-experimental approaches – have been developed specifically because just asking someone if an intervention has worked is a particularly inaccurate way to judge its effectiveness! Human beings are prone to a whole host of biases – check out this wikipedia entry for more biases than you ever realised existed. Of course, beneficiary feedback can and should form part of an evaluation but you need to be careful about how it is gathered – asking a few people who happen to be available and willing to speak to you is probably not going to give you a particularly accurate overview of user experience. The issue of relying on poorly sampled beneficiary feedback was at the centre of some robust criticisms of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s recent review of anti-corruption interventions – see Charles Kenny’s excellent blog on the matter here.

If you are trying to incorporate beneficiary feedback into a rigorous evaluation, a few questions to ask are: Have you used a credible sampling framework to select those you get feedback from? If not, there is a very high chance that you have got a biased sample – like it or not, the type of person who will end up being easily accessible to you as a researcher will tend to be an ‘elite’ in some way. Have you compared responses in your test group with responses from a group which represents a counterfactual situation? If not, you are at high risk of just capturing social desirability bias (i.e. the desire of those interviewed to please the interviewer). If gathering feedback using a translator, are you confident that the translator is accurately translating both what you are asking and the answers you get back? There are plenty of examples of translators who, in a misguided effort to help researchers, put their own ‘spin’ on the questions and/or answers.

Even once you have used a rigorous methodology to collect your beneficiary feedback, it may not be enough to tell the whole story. Getting feedback from people will only ever tell you about their perception of success. In many cases, you will also need to measure some more objective outcome to find out if an intervention has really worked. For example, it is common for people to conclude their capacity building intervention has worked because people report an increase in confidence or skills. But people’s perception of their skills may have little correlation with more objective tests of skill level. Similarly, those implementing behaviour change interventions may want to check if there has been a change in perceptions – but they can only really be deemed successful if an actual change in objectively measured behaviour is observed.


I guess the conclusion to all this is that of course it is important to work with the people you are trying to help both to identify solutions and to evaluate their success. But we also need to make sure that we don’t fetishise beneficiary feedback and as a result ignore the other important tools we have for making evidence-informed decisions.


* I am aware that ‘beneficiary’ is a problematic term for some people. Actually I also don’t love it – it does conjure up a rather paternalistic view of development. However, given that it is so widely used, I am going to stick with it for this blog. Please forgive me.

** I refuse to provide linklove to Bandaid but instead suggest you check out this fabulous Ebola-awareness song featured on the equally fabulous Africaresponds website.



Supply and demand in evidence-informed policy – this time with pictures!

I have talked before about supply and demand in evidence-informed policy but I decided to revisit the topic with some sophisticated visual aids. I am aware that using the using the model of supply/demand has been criticised as over-simplifying the topic – but I still think it is a useful way to think about the connections between research evidence and policy/practice (plus, to be honest, I am fairly simple!).

You can distinguish between supply and demand by considering ‘what is the starting point?’. If you are starting with the research (whether its a single piece of research or a body of research on a given topic) and considering how it may achieve policy influence, you are on the supply side…

In contrast, those on the demand side, typically start with a decision (or a decision-making process) and consider how research can feed into this decision…

#This distinction may seem obvious, but I think it is often missed. What this means in practice is an explosion of approaches to evidence-informed policy/practice which attempt to push more and more evidence out there in expectation that more supply will lead to a better world…


One problem with this is that if your supply approaches focus on just one research project – or one side of a debate – they risk going against evidence-informed policy


*Science monster usually lives here – she is just visiting my blog today


Some supply approaches do aim to increase access to a range of research and to synthesise and communicate where the weight of evidence lies. However, even these approaches are destined to fail if there is not a corresponding increase in demand…


I think we should continue to support supply-side activities but I  think we also need to get better at supporting the demand. So what would this look like in practice?

For me the two components of demand are the motivation (whether intrinsic or extrinsic) and the capacity (i.e. the knowledge, skills, attitudes, structures, systems etc) to use research. In other words, you need to want to use research and you need to be able to do so.

Motivation can be improved by enhancing the organisational  culture of evidence use – but also by putting systems in place which mandate and/or reward evidence use…

Achieving this in practice needs the support of senior decision makers within a policy making institution. So for example the UK Department for International Development has transformed the incentives to use research evidence since Prof Chris Whitty came in as the Chief Scientific Advisor and Head of Research.

But incentives on their own are not enough. There also needs to be capacity and it needs to exist at multiple levels; at an organisational level, there needs to be structural capacity such as adequate internet bandwidth, access to relevant academic journals etc etc. At an individual level, those involved in the policy making process need to be ‘evidence-literate’ – i.e. they need to know whaat research evidence is, where they can find it, how they can appraise it, how to draw lessons from evidence for policy decisions etc etc…

Achieving this may require a new recruitment strategy – selecting people for employment who already have a good understanding of research evidence. But continuing professional development courses can also be used to ‘upskill’ existing staff.

Anyway, the above is basically a pictural summary of this paper in the IDS bulletin so if you would like to read about the same topic in more academic terms (and without the pictures!) please do check it out. Its not open access I’m afraid so if you want a copy please tweet me @kirstyevidence or leave a comment below.

Hope you liked the pictures!