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Why Southern research?

September 11, 2018

Robert McLean

Senior program specialist, IDRC

The expanding public, private, and philanthropic investments into research for development (R4D) demonstrate the global belief in this transformative potential. Yet, with these investments must come critical questions. We want the best research to underpin social and natural progress, but how do we know when research is of high quality? And if we can determine what quality is made of, how can quality research be cultivated?

IDRC's almost 50-year track record of supporting R4D presents an opportunity to contribute evidence to these debates — so we endeavour to reflect and learn. In a recent effort we used the Research Quality Plus (RQ+) approach to conduct a retrospective meta-analysis of the scientific integrity, legitimacy, importance, and utility of 170 cases of IDRC-supported research across social and natural disciplines and based in academic, public, and private institutions worldwide.

Here are five things we learned about R4D:

1. Scientifically excellent research is useful research

Our review showed a strong positive correlation between research integrity and how well research is positioned for use. This means that researchers who conduct rigorous research are also ensuring that their work is getting to the right people, on time, and in ways that they can effectively use it.

So what? Good science leads to good change. Let’s get rigorous about putting it to work for development.

For example, applying advanced nanotechnology to increase food security.

Post-harvest fruit and vegetable losses affect the livelihoods of millions of farmers in India and Sri Lanka. It is estimated that the economy can lose up to one billion dollars annually from mango losses alone.

To tackle this challenge, researchers have developed green nanotechnology innovations using hexanal, a compound naturally secreted by injured plants. Practical applications of the nanotechnology, including sprays, packaging, and transport innovations, are improving people’s lives by directly benefiting farmers’ incomes, nutrition, and the agricultural economy in South Asia and beyond.

India is the world’s leading producer of mangoes, but some estimates indicate growers can lose one-third of their crop each year. Hexanal nanotechnology is successfully preserving the fragile fruits.

2. Capacity strengthening does not imply low scientific rigour

Research that focuses on capacity building shouldn’t be avoided out of a desire for excellence. In fact, the opposite is  true: novel techniques can emerge from people new to a field, and mentorship and training can have a positive influence on integrity and rigour. 

So what? Innovation is not the sole domain of the elite and the accomplished. It is time to encourage, support, and value new voices in science.

For example, more than 95% of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment at least once, but most of these incidents go unreported because of potential social stigma. Now a network of young researchers, activists, and volunteers are taking a fresh approach to remedy old problems.

By combining text messaging with an anonymous online reporting system, they were able to map where sexual harassment incidents occurred. The data is being used to strengthen community outreach programs and to challenge common beliefs, for example that harassment only happens at night. Ultimately their research is helping to build safer communities, empower women, and it is changing the attitudes of men in the process.

HarassMap is changing attitudes and empowering women by mapping the locations and types of harassment women experience in Cairo.
IDRC/ Eman Helal

3. New researchers innovate, but local researchers do so best

We learned that new researchers are brimming with brilliant ideas and that capacity building is worth the effort, but even fresh minds are superseded by local knowledge. Our meta-analysis shows us that those most closely linked to a particular problem, those who are embedded in the context, are best placed to find innovative solutions.

So what? No matter how well-intentioned, no one has a greater incentive to solve a problem than those on the ground, those with vested interest in getting it right.

Myanmar is a case in point. As the country transitions from military rule to democracy, misinformation abounds. This is a major threat to peace and security.

Local voices are playing a crucial role in counteracting this threat by sharing facts from the ground. Researchers in Myanmar are using this information to study how social and digital technologies can help dispel rumours and keep people and communities safe from dangerous misinformation.

The Sentinel Project set out to demonstrate the potential of social media and text messages to monitor and counter misinformation.
IDRC / Minzayar Oo

4. Quality begets quality

What is good quality research?  For IDRC it means work that is scientifically rigorous, legitimate to stakeholders and context, important, and well positioned for use.  Getting all of this from a project or program certainly requires an investment, but it is possible to design and conduct R4D that can have it all. What’s more, the data shows that quality actually reinforces itself across these dimensions.

So what? Those doing, funding, and using R4D should be demanding. Asking for more is correlated with getting more, from each dimension of quality.

Research on adaptation to climate change is critical, especially for those living in "hot spots" where climate variability meets poverty and vulnerability. One of these hot spots is the Himalayas, home to more than 200 million people and the key water source for another 1.3 billion people living downstream.

Researchers in Pakistan are developing solar pumps for irrigation that are both state-of-the-art and affordable for small and medium-scale farmers. By working closely with communities and decision-makers from local to national levels, researchers are ensuring that these pumps can make a real difference in people’s lives by being relevant, inclusive of local know-how, and actionable in the field.

Solar-powered water pumps are improving the resilience of Pakistani farmers to climate change.
IDRC / Tom Pilston

5. Southern research demonstrates quality, across all measures

It should come as no surprise that research happening in the Global South is the most useful and legitimate research for addressing the development challenges of the Global South. But the evidence shows it is also more scientifically robust, original, and relevant  (as opposed to Northern R4D or North-South partnered R4D).

So what? The internationalization of science is a bold and important global objective. When Southerners are at this table, get ready to learn.

The 2010 earthquake that overwhelmed Haiti destroyed 28 of the country’s 32 universities, and many professors and students were either killed or left the country. In these types of challenging situations, local solutions are paramount. Investing in Haitian research capacity through graduate courses is one way to ensure that high-quality Haitian-led knowledge, innovation, and solutions will be part of the future.

Graduate courses leading to master’s and doctoral degrees are an important step for Haiti’s sustainable development.
IDRC / Shiho Fukada

Learn more about RQ+ and how this innovative approach is being used to improve IDRC’s support for research for development.

Robert McLean is a senior program specialist in IDRC’s Policy and Evaluation Division.