Sowing seeds of prosperity

With its bigger budget, the DFID is promoting alliances focusing on development research, climate change, health and economic growth, says Zoe Corbyn

May 1, 2008

Researchers have received the first details of the Department for International Development's new research strategy.

There had been much anticipation among academics spanning natural to political sciences because the DFID had promised in 2006 to double research spending from about £110 million a year to £220 million a year by 2010.

The strategy sets out six broad research themes - including two new areas - into which the department intends to plough £1 billion in funding over the next five years. Climate change research receives a particularly large boost.

Launching the strategy at last week's opening of the £3.7 million London International Development Centre, a collaboration involving six universities that is based in Bloomsbury, Douglas Alexander, the Secretary for International Development, said: "(The strategy) confirms that the UK will become the leading donor country for development research. The sheer scale of this investment, together with the research expertise here in the UK, will, I believe, put (us) at the forefront of research and development literally around the world."

One independent researcher who has been watching developments is Paul van Gardingen, the executive director of the International Development Centre based at the University of Edinburgh, which is a a sister to the new institute. "It gives a framework and a direction for how to bring the research together in a more coherent way," he said.

"There are limited resources for the development sciences, and we need to make sure there is a real focus on delivering results that meet the needs of developing countries." He praised the way the strategy had been developed in consultation with developing nations.

The strategy is also in line with the DFID's wider agenda to improve its approach to research after it was heavily criticised by the Commons science committee in 2004.

The two new themes are "growth" and "future challenges and opportunities". It is not yet clear how much will be dedicated to each new theme.

The growth strand is intended to fill gaps in knowledge on economic growth in developing countries, including how best to increase productivity and extend opportunities to the poor.

The future challenges and opportunities strand will examine what is facing developing countries on the horizon. The first two areas to be investigated are what factors help development processes succeed and how developing countries can make the most of new and emerging technologies such as biotechnology, ICT and nanotechnology.

The other themes are "climate change", "sustainable agriculture", "health" and "governance in challenging environments", all of which carry through from the previous strategy. Each is earmarked for an increase.

On climate change, the DFID plans to invest £100 million over the next five years (the spend in 2007-08 was £7 million). The funding is intended to cover research into both the physical effects and the economic and social impacts of climate change on vulnerable developing countries.

"Previously, climate change was treated in a much more ad hoc way. Now there is a very clear steer that this is a major emerging issue where there is a real requirement for knowledge to be generated and applied," Dr van Gardingen said.

On sustainable agriculture - research into agriculture, fisheries and forestry - the DFID plans to invest £400 million over five years (the 2007-08 spend was £40 million).

The strategy is less prescriptive about the intended increase in the areas of health and governance. Health spending is currently £50 million a year, while governance gets £12 million. The health priorities set out in the new strategy include research focusing on making healthcare systems more effective and developing drugs and vaccines for diseases such as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria, among others.

Researchers are now waiting eagerly for the DFID to publish a timetable for calls for proposals and outline procedures. Like all the DFID's calls for proposals, they will be open to researchers in both the UK and developing countries. (Indeed, the complaint from many UK universities is that it is getting more difficult for them to capture development resources.)

The DFID expects UK researchers seeking funding to form consortia with their counterparts in developing countries.

"It is almost essential," Dr van Gardingen said. "Having local organisations is helpful when it comes to understanding the context for a problem. It gives your consortium a huge amount of credibility when it comes to applying the results and builds local capacity to generate and utilise knowledge in the countries."

The new strategy, he said, would also help other players - such as the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences, which brings together key UK funders and stakeholders - to interact with the department.

"Everybody is going to look forward to seeing what the calls actually look like," he said.

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