Another day, another committee discussing funding for development research (again, no details, sorry). This one produced a really interesting conundrum, perhaps even a trilemma, that suggests it may be impossible to simultaneously achieve three ‘Good Things’ sought by research funders: innovation, rigour and policy impact.
First, rigour: Western research funders do their level best to judge the rival merits of research proposals based on the importance to poverty reduction of the research, and its methodological rigour. They require lots of detail on the methodologies to be employed, rely on anonymous peer review and deliberately ignore or minimise the importance of reputation – whether of the institution or the lead researcher. Only fair, surely? The last thing we want is a nepotistic old boys (and girls) network of decent chaps who all went to college together bunging each other research grants with no questions asked, right?
Up to a point, Lord Copper (sorry, Scoop reference – feel free to ignore). Suppose you want to fund innovation: as Tim Harford argues in Adapt, it may be better to find and back innovative people, even if they don’t have a nicely worked out project. Harford points to the outstanding record of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which explicitly urges (and finances) ‘researchers to take risks, explore unproven avenues, to embrace the unknown’. And the best innovators may well be at the start of their careers (Einstein and Newton did their best work in their 20s). In the UK, the Wellcome Trust uses this approach with its ‘New Investigator Awards’ that “support outstanding researchers who are no more than five years from appointment to their first academic position, but who can already show that they have the ability to innovate and drive advances in their field of study.”
But what about policy impact, increasingly sought by funders of research? Evaluations of why some research has more impact on policy and practice add another personalistic element. The distinguishing factor between research that sinks without trace, and research that has impact is often the relationships of the researcher with decision-makers, and that favours well established researchers, who know everyone (and taught half of them as students). There’s a link to the idea that research has maximum influence after a shock (scandal, collapse of a previous policy, financial crisis, natural disaster, conflict etc). In such circumstances, decision makers are winging it, desperately looking for new ideas, and they are much more likely to turn to people they already know and trust (like their old professor) for those ideas.
That goes for institutions too: in many countries, if you want to influence the state, who does the research matters at least as much as how good the research actually is. Will officials trust the source? Working with parastatal thinktanks in countries like China and Vietnam is often the best way to ensure research finds a fast-track to policy influence.
If a funder wants to pursue three such contradictory goals, what can they do? They could decide to fund larger projects with separate components, but I’m not sure such different approaches and personalities could work together. Or they could create different funding pots. The difficulties include being more willing to accept higher failure rates or being less insistent on methodological rigour (in the case of backing innovators).
As for the risks, what can be done to prevent this just becoming a pretext for some lazy nepotism? All thoughts welcome.