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DFID must strengthen links with academics, say MPs

MPs have raised concerns over the level of scientific expertise at the Department for International Development, recommending that the department creates better links with researchers outside the department.

The recommendation is made in a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, ‘Building scientific capacity for development’, published on 26 October. The report is the result of a committee inquiry set up in November 2011.

The report says: “We remain concerned about the level of DFID’s in-house scientific and technical expertise and we reiterate the Government Office for Science’s recent recommendation that ‘DFID needs to have mechanisms in place to keep under review its current and future needs for professional staff’.”

According to the committee, strengthening links with external academics is important when supporting generalist staff in DFID’s overseas offices.

The committee also recommends that the UK government should promote the advantages of having a chief scientific adviser to other governments. It adds that the UK government’s CSA should build an international network of scientific advisers to governments.

The MPs behind the report have also asked for clarity on the size of a DFID research grant. The department often funds projects valued in six-figures, but the committee recommends that DFID should also consider funding research projects at the level of £100,000.

At an evidence session during the inquiry, the Institute of Physics’ director of external relations, Beth Taylor, said, “DFID is interested in funding things at the £1 million level, and somewhere in between at the £100,000 level there are things for which […] the learned society community as a whole could gear up, but that sort of level is missing.” Representatives from the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences shared this view.

The committee’s report recommends that DFID’s CSA meets representatives of learned societies and national academies to alleviate their concerns about funding. It adds, “We recommend that DFID publish a breakdown of the various direct and indirect funding streams available for scientific capacity building activities.”

The report also recommends that DFID helps researchers in developing nations to build careers in their own countries.

“There are some fantastic institutions doing great work in the developing world,” said Andrew Miller, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston who is chairman of the committee. “We need to ensure that these institutions grow and that our scientists are encouraged to expand their horizons” and get involved in science that is making a critical difference to people’s lives, he added.

The report also welcomed DFID’s work with the Technology Strategy Board to develop a programme to stimulate innovation in developing countries.