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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


More funding for research, yes, but what kind of research?

By Siobhan Pipa, on 21 November 2019

By Professor Joanna Chataway, UCL STEaPP, Dr Tommaso Ciarli and Dr Hugo Confraria, SPRU

Increased spending on research and innovation is a key component of efforts to help address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their complex interactions. But pumping more money into scientific research does not necessarily mean that research will succeed in addressing the SDGs, even when it is designed to do just that.  This observation is at the heart of the new international and multi-partner STRINGS project which is looking at how science, technology and innovation (STI) can be better aligned to addressing the SDGs in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs).

The reasons behind the misalignments between research funding and impact on the ground are multiple. For instance:

  • First, although the SDGs are global, and they need tackling at a number of levels, they also need to be understood in relation to national and regional investments in STI and goals. This synergy is often lacking (Chataway et al, 2019).
  • Second, the SDGs require contextual knowledge and capabilities, whereas national and global agendas often drive STI investments (e.g. science funding in Sub-Saharan Africa).
  • Third, STI capacity and capabilities differ dramatically across geographies and areas, with some of the most significant STI investments being made in areas unrelated to the SDGs targets. For example, high-income countries perform most of their medical research on diseases (e.g. malignant neoplasms) that are not the ones with a high global disease burden (e.g. neonatal conditions or parasitic diseases) (Evans et al. 2014; Ràfols and Yegros 2018). Even in cases where the focus is on diseases afflicting LMICs, the steps needed to ground the science in local health systems are often not pursued (Marjanovic, et al, 2017).
  • Fourth, STI priorities emerge from complex interactions between policymakers, funders, researchers and innovators, each with their own incentives and institutionalised practices (Arza and Fressoli, 2018; Dalrymple, 2006). It is possible that the research funded as the outcome of these complex interventions is not well aligned with national or regional priorities (Ciarli and Ràfols, 2019). Even when policy efforts are shifted to achieve more impact through investments in ‘applied’ research and specific challenges, it is regularly the case that the kind of knowledge and networks related to implementation and understanding of the challenges in particular contexts is often marginalised.
  • Fifth, several power interactions (including path dependence on long-term investments and conflicting interests) (Arora et al, 2013; Stirling, 2009, 2014) may turn innovation outcomes in several (unforeseen or undesired) directions which may be less inclusive than framed in the STI priorities (Chataway et al. 2014;).

The problem is magnified by the often-used shortcut of the ‘linear model’, which does not acknowledge the complexity of the relation between STI funding and achievement and contends that funding the ‘best’ science will automatically lead to social and economic benefits. Although the problems of this model are widely recognised, selection and evaluation criteria for the funding of projects are often based overwhelmingly on academic peer assessment of ‘research excellence’. This can include criteria of research novelty and the existing international profile of academics applying for funding. These criteria may be important to develop scientific capacity and capabilities, but they can also undermine efforts to fund research that responds to the needs on the ground (see the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA), the Leiden Manifesto and the Metric tide on criteria for research evaluation).

For example, a recent evaluation of the Newton Fund, which aimed to address development challenges of the poorest through research and innovation found that almost 90% of the resources spent stayed within UK institutions and noted the relatively weak impact of this funding in low income countries.

In a different context, preliminary results from a project aiming to help promote relevant science, technology and innovation in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania showed that the SDGs’ research areas which receive most funding, mainly from foreign funders, and in which researchers in the three countries publish most in international journals, are not necessarily the SDGs were the countries fare worst with respect to SDGs indicators. The substantial misalignment between research specialisation (mostly in SDG3 – health and well-being) and challenges faced by the three countries according to SDGs indicators (such as SDG1 – poverty, SDG6 – Clean water and sanitation, or SDG9 – industry, infrastructure and innovation), may undermine the development of capabilities to effectively understand the contextual conditions to best achieve the SDGs targets.

As synergies, trade-offs and misalignments emerge between different STI areas and SDGs, there is no consensus on how science, policy and society should frame investments to most effectively achieve the SDGs. In order to improve understanding on how STI may best contribute to SDGs, we need an integrative framework that is capable of mapping and studying the complex dynamics between STI areas and SDGs. Such mapping, we hope, would provide some guidance on how to improve the allocation of public and private investment in research to address SDGs, across different contexts.

The STRINGS project aims to develop such an integrative framework, that will:

  • Identify the STI areas and directions that have contributed to the achievement of SDGs in the past;
  • Identify global (mis)alignments between STI investments and SDGs targets and understand the ways in which they may impede improvements towards the targets across national and regional contexts;
  • Identify new areas in which STI can potentially produce the most effective impact on SDGs outcomes;
  • Develop a detailed understanding of the trade-offs and synergies between advances in STI and the different SDGs by linking global analysis to contextual analysis;
  • Provide guidelines to improve the effectiveness of policy interventions for achieving the latter;
  • Identify, through detailed case studies, contextual obstacles and study disjunctures between policies and practices and the way in which they have been overcome.

Our analysis aims to provide policy tools and guidelines, for governing and (re)orienting STI to meet the SDGs. The report’s impact on policy and practice will be facilitated through continuous engagement with a variety of stakeholders. Our aim is, by the end of the project, to be able to shed more light on what are the major sources of misalignment between STI investments and the SDGs, and identify a diverse set of criteria for research funding and support to improve steering STI towards the SDGs.

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