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Beefed-up DFID still failing to maximise research, MPs argue

Despite significantly boosting its research spending in recent years, the Department for International Development is failing to make the most of the research it commissions, MPs have said.

The warning came in the House of Commons International Development Committee’s report on DfID’s annual report and 2011-12 accounts, published on 31 January.

The committee notes that the department, which will see its biggest-ever budget rise in 2013, has increased its central research programme by 126 per cent in the six years to 2011–12. Spending has now reached £220 million, and is expected to grow by a further £100m by 2014-15.

Nevertheless, it adds, there are weaknesses in both the commissioning process and the way that DfID staff use the research it commissions.

One of the problems it highlights is that 27 per cent of the department’s research expenditure goes as core funding to international organisations “without any market-testing”.

In addition, there is little information about how much it is spending on UK universities, which is something it should review “to identify any sectors where UK universities look under represented”.

The MPs also raise concerns over the department’s research portfolio, saying it doesn’t fund enough small projects. This is because its Research and Evidence Division “does not have the staff to directly manage the commissioning and oversight of all smaller research exercises,” they argue.

“To maintain a balanced portfolio of large and small projects the department may need to make greater use of the research councils and other donors and partners, such as the Gates Foundation, to commission research,” they write.

The MPs are also concerned about the way DfID staff use research and evidence. The department’s Quality Assurance Unit reported in February last year that 59 per cent of some 30 business cases it examined for issues such as use of evidence were “lacking, inappropriate or poorly employed”.

The committee says it has been told that training has since been put in place to address the problem. However, it recommends that the training should be improved and that the department should also put increased resources into its research and evidence division.