Recommendations for funding for research

The head of the £1.5b Global Challenges Research Fund, Dr Mark Claydon-Smith, met with academics last night and we offered some recommendations about good grant-making. Mine were based on the experiences of a collaborative research project (2014-2017, ESRC/DFID-funded) posing the over-arching question, what is the relationship between Parliament and the public when they are aiming for poverty reduction? Our coalition of political scientists, public policy / administration scholars, and anthropologists in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and the UK are exploring how MPs interact with each other, their constituents, party workers, and CSOs and what this means for democracy.

Here is a summary of my recommendations:

Collaborative planning and review: We had no money for planning as a team before Ruth Fox (Hansard Society) and I submitted our proposal so at the start of the project it was hard to convince our colleagues in Bangladesh and Ethiopia that it was their project as much as ours. We all met in Dhaka as soon as we could, so at least we planned the project together in great detail in month two. This meant we could set limits on what we studied as well as plan to achieve some comparability. We realised that colleagues wouldn’t make progress if they did not own the plan. Plus we created incentives for them to commit the huge amount time required to do the research well, making sure they knew that they would be the ones publishing their findings. We keep in very regular contact through visits and Skype to keep the collaborative show on the road.

  • Recommendation 1: research grant-makers might consider creating small-grant schemes for the development of coalitions and projects so that researchers in the South get better opportunities to design and lead research.

We recognise that research is a social and political process as well as an intellectual one: Research has many functions but one of them is to put the spotlight on powerful decision-makers, in our case politicians. In the case of our project it is vital that these scholars have a long-term commitment to the country because they are all citizens of that nation. We expatriates have a supporting role, but it is nationals who will produce the outputs and will influence their politicians and international agencies. The development of Southern researchers’ capacity is one of the research aims. Research is usually seen as the collection of evidence to solve problems – we see our project as contributing to the development of national research capacity to undertake critical scrutiny.

  • Recommendation 2: Many assume research generates evidence but it can also be a form scrutiny. In countries when the media, observers and others scrutinizing the work of those in positions of power are constrained, research can take on a particular significance as a form of scrutiny.
  • Recommendation 3: Capacity development of Southern researchers should be a central aim of all projects. Donors could stipulate this as a condition of funding, especially given the career incentives created for UK academics to retain funding and publish rather than enable others to do so. A growing proportion of projects should be led by Principal Investigators in the Global South.

Rigorous qualitative research requires reflexivity and flexibility: The findings of studies are shaped in part by the identity of the researcher. Partly for this reason, but also because women in rural areas of Ethiopia and Bangladesh will speak more freely about certain topics with women, Ruth and I proposed that we have least one woman on each team in each country. To convince colleagues, we ran an experiment. A caucus of women MPs were interviewed by a group of us – two men and two women – and when the men left the interview, the discussion changed dramatically. Women MPs revealed their vulnerability in a way they never would have done in the presence of the senior Ethiopian man (this blog explains the details).

  • Recommendation 4: The identity of researchers deserves careful consideration. Under-represented groups in the research community should be given opportunities at a matter of priority. Women, young people and those from minorities should be pro-actively recruited. At the least women should be involved in all research teams if their absence may mean that the views of significant numbers of informants will not be heard as fully.
  • Recommendation 5: It is entirely reasonable that grant-makers want rigorous, high quality research that can have a significant beneficial impact. At the same time we can’t know what we will find in advance so qualitative research projects require a reflexive and emergent approach to achieve rigour. Grant-makers need to allow flexibility, variances and changes to plans and budgets if they want high impact.

What to fund: grant-makers are often tempted to focus on specific themes and countries. Researchers might have brilliant ideas and projects but as donors and grant-makers increasingly narrow their priorities (in terms of sector and geography), it becomes harder to secure funding. Much excellent research deals with various interconnected aspects of challenges, problems, causes and symptoms of poverty or conflict, rather than just working on one. Many researchers give up on participatory processes of consultation, where they find out from stakeholders what they need or prefer and then seek funding for nationally/locally-led projects, and just respond to donors’ priorities. This distorts the sector and leads to compliance and collusion rather than creativity.

  • Recommendation 6: If themes are deemed necessary, then stress connections rather than reinforce sectoral silos; inspire inter-disciplinarity and imaginative thinking (e.g., include themes arising out of concepts like complexity or stigma as cross-cutting rather well-worn categories); change the themes fairly frequently; and allocate a large proportion to ‘other’ category.