Reply: More research collaboration - more capacity

Knowledge and contributions from researchers, even from academically weak countries, are central to identifying relevant problems and solutions to global challenges. Therefore, strengthening research capacity in low-income countries should continue to be the focus of Swedish research cooperation in development assistance, writes Lisa Román, research secretary at Sida, in a reply.

Developments in poor countries and challenges of a global nature are linked. This is highlighted in the new global goals for sustainable development, just as David Nilsson writes in his article Time for new thinking in research aid! at Bistå on 23/6. The fulfillment of the goals is also strongly dependent on investments in new research and knowledge. Therefore, Nilsson believes, aid-financed research collaboration must change. However, it is unclear in what way he believes that research assistance today fails to help deal with global challenges. And what are Nilsson's proposals? The debate article is rather about Swedish research in general. How Swedish research addresses global challenges is important to discuss, but it is a different question than how Swedish research assistance works.

The development assistance-funded research grant is a small part of the total research funding in Sweden. Whether this gutter still has a discernible effect on other Swedish research has not, as far as I know, been investigated. Two opposing hypotheses are conceivable: One is that so-called development-relevant research has been referred to the development assistance-funded research grant and has become a special interest for an isolated group of researchers, which has reduced other researchers '(and funders') interest in this type of research. The second is that researchers have received research ideas and seen applications in new areas thanks to the catalytic effect of aid-financed research and thereby increased the general interest in conducting development-relevant Swedish research.

Incomprehensible reduction in research assistance

The grant for development research in Sweden constitutes only 15 per cent of the development assistance's total funding for research collaboration - a grant which in its entirety has unfortunately decreased as a proportion of Swedish development assistance. Fifteen years ago, the research grant accounted for approximately eight percent of the aid to Sida. Today it is only five percent. The decrease is difficult to understand. As far as I know, there is no overall evaluation or any political stance that justifies a reduction in research funding. On the contrary - the development that David Nilsson refers to (the global challenges, the dependence on knowledge, the common research tasks) suggests that research support should constitute a major part of Swedish development assistance.

Most of the development assistance-funded research funding has been used for 40 years to build research capacity in low-income countries and to develop new, development-relevant knowledge through support for regional and international research programs. However, the direction and methodology have changed over time. In the Government's latest strategy for the management of research collaboration, “innovation” has also been added as a result area, with the aim of connecting research findings and applications.

Sweden initially provided support to individuals from low-income countries who were educated at universities abroad, but when they returned to their home countries there were no conditions for them to do research. Eventually, collaborations were initiated with entire universities, including support for research equipment, research administration and the development of research strategies. This has led to collaborations being conducted at national level in several countries to build up domestic well-functioning research systems.

The link between research capacity and development needs to be evaluated

Throughout the years, research collaboration has included Swedish universities and researchers who have contributed through the Swedish model for capacity building. The model means, among other things, that doctoral students are occasionally educated at Swedish universities, but are linked to their home universities.

The Swedish model for strengthening research capacity is based on long experience. It is supported by studies that trace what has become of doctoral students who have been examined in the development assistance-financed research programs. These show that the majority of those who have a doctorate in the programs remain in their home countries, either as researchers or in other societal roles. But research collaboration needs a more systematic analysis of what the links between strengthened research capacity and countries' general capacity to manage their development look like. Such an evaluation could lead to new thinking in research collaboration and / or all development assistance.

David Nilsson is not right in his argument. The capacity building can continue, he writes. Instead, it is Swedish research (and development aid!) That must change, according to Nilsson. The question is how? Should research money be earmarked? Should more research funding go to explicit collaborations with researchers in low-income countries? Should research be more oriented towards "development challenges"? Should development aid only fund research that directly leads to innovation? Or is all the aid to be changed, so that more aid goes to research?

Research capacity is important in all countries

The answers to these questions are not obvious. It is problematic if the research that is claimed to contribute to solutions to global challenges takes precedence over, for example, basic research. What happens to research that at first does not seem to be "challenging" but which eventually turns out to be? At the same time, there is a need to invest resources in a focused and efficient manner. A way to meet these conflicting needs for free research and of governance is diversity in financing. Different financiers are driven by different motives that complement each other. In that diversity, a pot from aid that says "research on things that are relevant to people living in poverty" can play a positive role.

The challenges facing the world require international research collaboration. All countries must be equipped for this. The poorest countries are no exception. Knowledge and contributions from researchers, even from academically weak countries, are central to identifying relevant problems and solutions to global challenges. Therefore, strengthening research capacity in low-income countries should continue to be the focus of Swedish research cooperation in development assistance.

 Lisa Roman

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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