Today, we can see a growing concern among governments, policy makers, donors and other stakeholders, that there is a mismatch between research (R&D) input and its results. Substantial amounts of money are spent on research facilities without a commensurate return on investment. For developed countries, it can be frustrating not getting the sought-after mileage of an investment in knowledge production. For developing countries, the effects can be more sinister and even thwart development.
Bridging the gap between production and application of knowledge is vital for innovation that addresses development challenges.
Often knowledge exists, but there is little incentive to apply it to solve urgent problems of poor communities. Understanding why this is so requires asking hard questions. Who actually sets the research agendas, researcher or funding agencies? And how are scientific results used to inform policymakers? These questions are addressed in the forthcoming book Innovation Systems for Development – Making Research Matter in Developing Countries. Based on empirical data from Bolivia, Vietnam, Tanzania, and Mozambique, the book examines how the research agenda is set and how the results of the knowledge creation can be better integrated in a national development strategy.
The findings show that:
- All four countries made considerable progress in meeting the Millennium Developmental Goals. Each geared at least part of their national innovation system towards combating pressing societal problems and promoting economic development. This indicates that innovation systems can produce research results that are relevant for the developmental goals of the country.
- Researchers feel that their own work, as well as that of other researchers, is both relevant and high quality. They nonetheless lament that research funding is low and not used efficiently. Rather than research quality, it is the structure of the innovation system that is not conducive to research results being put to use. In other words, it is a system failure rather than the capability or competency of researchers.
- Bolivia is the outlier among the four countries, with regard to quality and relevance of national research. There appears to be miscommunication between knowledge producers and policy makers. A linear approach to research policy hampers the ability of the innovation system to effectively address developmental problems. Again a system failure.
- Respondents in the other three countries feel their research has a positive impact on development. Consistent with their critique of how innovation systems function, researchers believe that their impact would be clearer with more dialogue between researchers and policy makers. Platforms for exchanging ideas are sorely missing in all four countries.
- The researchers are willing to embrace national development priorities over more narrow academic demands when formulating and conducting research projects. This is an important declaration of intent, and essential if innovation is to support national development.
- Women and men tend to agree on these points. Women tended to be slightly more positive than men in their responses. Women were far more positive than men regarding the ability of research funding to support national development priorities. There were no discernable persistent differences in response patterns with respect to age or educational level.
To sum up, these four countries are crafting a virtuous cycle between researchers and policy makers, to better inform policy with evidence. Research communities are willing to align their activities closer with developmental goals. This finding contradicts earlier claims that the academic incentive system effectively distorts research efforts, away from national priorities and towards more career-enhancing endeavours. Our work also identifies a great need for constructive dialogue between researchers and policy makers. It remains to be seen how these countries will capitalize on this goodwill to pursue reforms that make research matter for development.