Rethinking collaboration for global challenge research means rethinking research systems as well as partnerships
by Jude Fransman
The launch of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) by the UK government in 2015 marked an unprecedented £1.5 billion investment of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment into research. Since then, the fund has come under fire from critics including the International Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) who’s rapid review of the GCRF conducted in 2017 suggested that a combination of inadequate strategy, underutilization of development experts in both governance and implementation of GCRF research (partly due to the Haldane principle around research autonomy), and a focus on the supply-side of research rather than in-country demand risked undermining the GCRF commitment to ‘solutions focused and challenge led’ research. These allegations are extremely important as they raise concerns about the use of ODA funds for research as a potential form of tied aid. If funds do not have a direct link to development practice in DAC-listed countries there is a danger that the primary beneficiary of ‘aid’ becomes the UK’s higher education sector (and potentially British business through the recent merger of the research councils with Innovate UK into UK Research and Innovation [UKRI] in a new realignment with the UK’s industrial strategy).
In response, UKRI has mobilised the rhetoric of ‘fair and equitable research partnerships’ between UK-based academics as the traditional recipients (the grant holders or ‘Principal Investigators’) of UKRI funds and academics based in DAC-listed countries as well as other non-academic development practitioners and knowledge brokers. The hope is that such partnerships will help to frame more relevant and responsive research topics (by focusing research on ‘real world problems’ beyond traditional academic silos and promoting interdisciplinary approaches); integrate local and practitioner knowledge from development contexts; and strengthen research capacity in DAC-listed countries. However, making these complex partnerships work across national, sectoral and disciplinary boundaries is an enormous challenge.
There is a substantial existing literature on ‘how to do’ research partnerships and topics such as ‘how to reconcile agendas and build trust’, ‘how to navigate conflicting timetables’ and ‘how to communicate research accessibly’ are well rehearsed. This literature tends to put the onus for understanding and improving partnerships on the partners themselves (for example, our Discussion Guide and Toolkit aimed at UK-based academics and international NGOs) However, as our ESRC Seminar Series revealed, participation in partnerships is shaped by a ‘politics of evidence’ channelled through institutional structures and processes, social and cultural practices, personal identities, material artefacts and the terminology surrounding ‘partnerships’ itself. These influences exist within, around and beyond discrete partnership in systems such as the UK’s research system but also the global knowledge-for-development ecosystem of which research is just one part.
Improving research partnerships therefore involves improving the research systems that surround them. A partnership could be designed and implemented democratically, respectfully and transparently – but if the funding source grants leadership to just one type of partner or imposes caps on the budget of another type of partner, these efforts will be obstructed.
These are the challenges that the Rethinking Research Collaborative and our recent strategic research for UKRI on understanding and improving fair and equitable research partnerships sought to respond to. Adopting a systemic approach to research collaboration allowed us to approach research partnerships in the broader context of the research systems that frame them through agenda-setting and governance on the one had but also accessibility, adaptability and usability of research on the other.
By reaching out to three key groups of ‘research partner’ that tend to enter into partnerships with UK-based academics (academics based in the global South; civil society practitioners based in the global South; and INGOs and research brokers) we compiled a list of enablers and inhibiters of ‘fair and equitable research partnerships’ from a partners’ perspective. This then formed the basis for establishing eight principles for fair and equitable research partnerships that might equally apply to a partnership itself as well as the broader research-for-development system that surrounds it. These principles include the need to ensure apt pathways to development impact; a commitment to equitable and representative participation in research agenda-setting and governance as well as in the design/implementation/communication of research itself; equitable allocation of funds and responsive and adaptive funding schemes; and investment in strong and sustainable relationships with funding for the hidden costs of collaboration as well as ongoing learning.
To help different stakeholder groups translate these principles into practice we developed a series of learning resources targeted to different groups. These modules support stakeholders to think about improving partnerships from the context of their own practice but also encourage an understanding of the other stakeholder groups in terms of what they might bring to research partnerships as well as the challenges they might face.
These outputs were framed by a strategic programme of research and capacity strengthening to support UKRI’s own policy and practice around the GCRF and other international development programmes. They therefore focus on the UK’s research system and the key stakeholder groups that comprise its ODA-funded programmes. UKRI has already made significant headway by improving the representativeness of its governing bodies and review colleges and supporting research led by academics from the global South. However, participation in such initiatives will always be constrained by the realities of academics in the least resourced parts of the global South and inadequate compensation for development practitioners for whom research is not a primary agenda. This implies a growing need to understand the system in the context of the broader knowledge-for-development ecosystem, raising important though challenging questions around control of ODA funds. It also implies the need for collective efforts to strengthen the capacity of of research systems in the global South (as opposed to the capacity of individual researchers and their institutions) and ultimately, to shift the centre of gravity away from research funders in the UK.