Alex Gwyther

Alex Gwyther explains how UK research can help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and why collaboration is more important than ever.

As most of our readers will probably know, this week has been a biggie for global development. Over the past couple of days the United Nations have been agreeing the Sustainable Development Goals (see IIED’s excellent video for a quick explanation).

Views on the value of the Goals range from optimistic to erring more on the side of cynical, but I’m at least finding it rewarding to see development receive so much public attention, and be given a valid excuse to once again try and explain to my friends what I do. In celebration of the SDGs we’ve published our top 20 stories of UK research contributing to global development.

Working at UKCDS gives you a privileged insight into the incredible range, quality and impact of UK development research. Not least because this year (incidentally the International Year of Evaluation) saw the release of a massive database of almost 7,000 case studies on the wider impacts of UK research. It was created as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF): the system which assesses the quality of research across all UK universities.

We’ve been plumbing the depths of this database to see what we can learn about development research in particular. We did a rapid analysis of the “who, what and where?”, and discovered interesting details on topics like the most common research topics or areas of impact. We’ve now used the database to choose our top 20 stories that show the global impact of UK research. The beauty of these stories is that – with a bit of imagination – they act as examples of research around (almost) every one of the new Goals.

Below are some of the Goals:

  • Encouraging welfare and social development through Conditional Cash Transfers
  • Creating disease-resistant crops to help feed millions
  • Driving the worldwide health response to the threat of avian influenza
  • Building towards education for all using mobile learning resources
  • Designing gender and human development policies to prevent conflict in West Africa
  • Improving water quality and healthcare to reduce diarrhoeal disease in Malawi
  • Improving the use of alternative energy systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia
  • Supporting innovation and the private sector in inclusive African development
  • Evaluating and improving major road networks across the world
  • Protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of low mobility
  • Preventing household air pollution to improve public health
  • Supporting a landmark global agreement on tackling climate change
  • Creating the world’s biggest marine reserve to support the biodiversity and people of the Indian Ocean
  • Conserving mangrove trees in Africa to protect local livelihoods
  • Helping countries recover and rebuild after serious conflict

Our collection of stories not only highlights the excellence and value of UK development research, but also demonstrates how it often spans traditional scientific disciplines. Interdisciplinary research (IDR) seems to be on everyone’s mind at the moment. HEFCE (the organisation responsible for the REF) have reviewed the performance of UK IDR, and Nature wrote a whole special supplement about it – arguing that while many see IDR as important, it’s not without its challenges.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that collaborations are difficult. It’s something that we understand here at UKCDS, because facilitating partnerships is our bread and butter. We believe that cross-discipline collaboration is often the cornerstone of effective development research, as real world problems don’t fall neatly into the categories that research has carved out for itself. Funders and academics are waking up to that fact and we’re now seeing more interdisciplinary research programmes and major initiatives supporting extensive collaboration.

This is where UKCDS adds value – we bring together funders, policymakers and research organisations from different disciplines and scales in an effort to help UK research tackle global challenges. The SDGs offer a new set of global targets, which will require further collaboration, and so we look forward to continuing our work and playing our part in helping UK research make a difference in development.

See our full collection of the top 20 stories of UK development research.