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Research for the developing world: Moving from development studies toward global science

Research for the developing world is the application of science to the challenges facing poor people and places.

In the 20th century, such research fell into two camps: one rooted in the traditions of social sciences, such as sociology & political science coalescing around development studies, and one rooted in the natural sciences, such as tropical medicine and agriculture. The former took developing countries as a subject of study, the latter as a setting for application. The former elaborated distinct theories and concepts, providing unique explanations distinct from those used for advanced economies. The latter remained grounded in universal theories and concepts, such as human physiology and soil morphology, to deal with distinct phenomena–such as pathogens and plants–that simply did not exist in temperate climates.

The intellectual landscape has now moved beyond this quaint dichotomy.

In the first instance, a more diverse set of disciplines contribute to understanding human societies and aspirations to improve them. Business schools & marketing, design & engineering, and ICTs & digital technologies joined the established curricula of ideas for enhancing the quality of life in the developing world. These fields chart a middle course, rallying concepts of ‘what works’ elsewhere, while the remaining focused on reaching the ‘bottom billion.’

In the second instance, the camps of social and natural sciences have themselves transformed. Whereas development economics was once a distinct discipline for poor places, the field is increasingly integrated across borders: applying insights from behavioural science, grappling with asymmetric information, and fostering entrepreneurship and employment. Similarly, agriculture is undergoing a global revolution driven by the potentials for geo-positioning, real-time market information, and precision farming. Molecular biology, genetics, and data analytics pushed the leading edge of health and agricultural research upstream into the laboratory and hackathons.

Image credit: Agriculture by StateofIsrael. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Consequently, research for the developing world became less predicated on exceptionalism, field experience, and career-long specialization.

A previous generation of scholars and practitioners elaborated ideas and applications for a developing world viewed as distinct from the global north and somehow common within itself. Yet constraints and opportunities vary across Bolivia and Botswana, Egypt and Ethiopia, or Nigeria and Nepal. Our theories for explaining continuity and change in human society must account for such diversity, whether through consilience or epistemic pluralism. The developing world may share a commonality of constrained resources–capital, technology, or talent–but such initial conditions do not necessitate a separate set of concepts to explain social and natural change. Understanding of development is richer for drawing from multiple disciplines and methods.

Research for the developing world is increasingly embedded in global science, rather than set apart from it. Yet there is a cost. Scholars and practitioners are subject to similar pressures that shape research careers elsewhere. The credibility of a young academic is less based on her or his field experience accompanying people experiencing development, and more on amassing peer-reviewed publications in highly-cited journals. In establishing a professional reputation, it is a liability to spend substantial time in the field or collaborate with less-proficient colleagues abroad. More recent performance assessment schemes do consider the ‘impact’ of a scholar’s work on real-world policy and practice, yet these measures do not weigh as heavily as criteria of academic excellence.

Looking back, research jobs and funding became increasingly open to specialists who wish to benefit people in Africa or Asia, while maintaining a career in their area of expertise. Looking forward, the rise of international collaboration, through such programs as Newton Fund or Horizon 2020, is altering research in and by developing world. Advanced economies seek to tap scientific expertise anywhere, while developing countries seek to plug into global science.

Research for the developing world is at a crossroads: fading as foreign aid contributes an increasingly modest share of science funding in the global south, yet thriving with efforts to address ‘one world’ global challenges. New programs promise to improve human well-being through knowledge and innovation on pandemic disease, climate change, food security, intrastate violence, forced migration, and more. Such programs are driven by funders in the global north and south, such as science granting councils, as well as international coalitions such as Belmont Forum, Global Resilience Partnership and Saving Lives at Birth.

Beyond their stated goals of creating a better world, such programs alter the opportunities and incentives to pursue a research career. History provides vital insights into these unintended consequences. At this crossroads, ‘research for the developing world’ is being subsumed under the consensus of peer review and global scholarship. Yet research for ‘global challenges’ deserves funding that is fit-for-purpose: one that encourages careers with substantial ambition to achieve transformative change over the coming decades.

Featured image credit: Earth by Kevin M. Gill. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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