A world of worth

Researchers from the Policy Institute at King’s discuss their study on the impact of global development research conducted at UK universities.

What is the impact of research carried out to support international development and humanitarian relief efforts? What are the social returns on investment from this research, outside of academia? And how do these non-academic benefits relate to the delivery of “front line” aid?

Keen to examine these questions, we responded to a challenge from the UKCDR to interrogate data on research impact submitted as part of the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise.

Unique in terms of its scale and setup, REF’s results dictate the allocation of approximately £1.6 billion of annual research funding across the UK’s universities. For the first time, one-fifth of the overall funding pot was determined on the basis of universities submitting case studies that described the non-academic impacts of their research (defined as any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life’).

Our recently-published initial analysis (derived from a total of 6,679 non-redacted case studies) revealed a staggering 3,709 unique pathways by which research led to a vast array of impacts. The key question UKCDS asked us was to explore those impacts relating to international development and, specifically, the role of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in contributing to their delivery.

Using the publicly-accessible REF2014 online search tool, we combined searches for DFID (or related terms such as UKAID) with searches for case studies related to the topic “international development” as coded by our initial analysis. This generated a total of 287 case studies, which we read and classified according to the broad research area – or the “Unit of Assessment” – to which the research was submitted in the REF (e.g. clinical medicine, politics and international studies, anthropology and development studies). We also classified the case studies according to the sector in which impact took place (e.g. health, education, human rights), the different channels used to deliver impact, and the stages along a pathway to achieving impact described in each case.

We found that a majority of the case studies we read (n=200, 70%) provided evidence of research findings having been put into practice – for example, child welfare research feeding into the development of Rwanda’s Integrated Child Rights Policy, which frames the social care of 1 million children. Just under a third of the case studies we analysed (n=84, 29%) also reported observable outcomes on beneficiaries – such as population research underpinning reform of the one-child policy in China, offering reproductive health and family planning choices to over 754 million Chinese men and women of reproductive age.

Irrespective of outcome, a high proportion of intended research beneficiaries appeared to be development professionals or policymakers, which may reflect an ambition for the research to be focussed on policy change as a means to an end. This would certainly seem consistent with both our and other’s observations that informing government policy was the most commonly-reported impact in the full set of 6,679 case studies.

DFID was noted as having financially supported the research in a little under half of the case studies identified (n=123, 43%). Collaboration seemed key in delivering impact for many of these, as over a third of the DFID-funded case studies also referenced co-funding from other UKCDS members.

The diversity of research disciplines and impacts described across the various sectors were also impressive. Impacts on health, the environment, local economy and poverty reduction were the most commonly reported, with most case studies noting impacts in at least 2 or 3 sectors. In line with the findings from our initial analysis, it would appear that multidisciplinarity plays an important part in research achieving wider societal gains.

There are of course limitations in using REF impact case studies as analytical material, such as the overall positive sentiment in the language used, and the fact that researchers were not required to mention funders in their write up of these case studies. It is likely our analysis therefore under-represents the full extent of impact.

Nonetheless, we feel our report provides a useful and evidence-informed snapshot of the many and varied ways in which this research is benefitting global society. It builds on related efforts – such as Research Councils UK Pathways to Impact project, and DFID’s recent literature review of the evidence of research impact on development – by documenting the social value of UK public investment in international development and humanitarian research.

We hope our analysis enables others to make best use of the growing body of evidence derived from research to improve the quality and reach of international aid. Initiatives such as the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises evidence review (forming the basis of DFID-Wellcome Trust joint funding) and Médecins Sans Frontières’ evaluation of field-based research efforts (one of whose operational programmes formed the subject of a recent impact assessment), provide two examples of organisations feeding data on research impact into decision-making at a strategic level. We look forward to further opportunities to engage with others with an interest in this emerging field.

Adam Kamenetzky is a Research Fellow and Dr Saba Hinrichs is a Senior Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London.

The Policy Institute at King’s links insightful research with rapid, relevant policy analysis to stimulate forward-looking debate and shape future policy agendas. It aims to improve evidence-informed policy and practice by facilitating mutual engagement between academic, business and policy communities around current and future policy needs in the UK and globally. The Policy Institute combines the academic excellence of King’s College London with the connectedness of think tanks and the professionalism of consultancies.