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REF case studies reveal recipe for development research

Impact is built on long-term, equitable partnerships, say Alice Chadwick El-Ali and Andrea Padilla

Of the 6,781 case studies submitted to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, 891, or 13 per cent, describe international development research, defined as impact in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), and alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In a report published on 12 September, the UK Collaborative on Development Research analyses these case studies to show what international development research is being done in UK universities and how it achieves impact. The report highlights trends and gaps in development research and reveals six dimensions for helping such research have a greater impact on development.

We found that, over the last REF period of 2013-20, the UK’s international development research showed a thematic focus on health and wellbeing (accounting for 23 per cent of case studies) and peace-building (14 per cent). These are strongly aligned with SDG 3, Good Health and Wellbeing, and SDG 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Case studies also showed the importance placed on transdisciplinarity, with many partnerships between universities and public, private and civil society organisations and local communities.

Development research extends beyond academia, with 126 case studies highlighting partnerships with civil society in LMICs. Additionally, 36 per cent of research users were LMIC governments, showcasing the importance of non-academic actors in implementing research findings.

Global reach

UK international development research has a worldwide impact, with half of case studies showing an impact in both LMICs and high-income countries. In LMICs, research impact contributed predominantly to India (18 per cent), Kenya (15 per cent), Brazil (12 per cent), South Africa (11 per cent) and Uganda (11 per cent). 

We found a focus on policy and practice impact, primarily in connection with LMIC governments and international governmental organisations. Most funding was public, including a blend of official development assistance and non-ODA sources.

As well as this high-level picture, UKCDR took a deep dive into 10 case studies, interviewing UK research teams and their partners in LMICs and hosting a virtual workshop. From this evidence, we put together a framework of research enablers for development impact, comprised of six dimensions:

1. Understanding of impact

How research impact is understood shapes both the pathways to and types of impact. A narrow interpretation—focused on policy changes, for example—can marginalise other aspects, such as building networks and strengthening capacity. Understanding the contexts in which research takes place helps ensure research is framed around what communities need.

2. Funding

Different forms and timescales of impact demand diverse funding approaches and mechanisms. Long-term and challenge-led approaches are important, as is the flexibility to adapt to changing research contexts and the time and resources needed for co-production with research users.

3. Co-production

For research to reflect local needs, research users need to be equal partners from the outset. Co-production highlights the richness of different knowledge systems and builds ownership of the research process, leading to outputs that can genuinely enhance impact.

4. Long-term partnerships

Long-term equitable partnerships can build upon emerging findings, capture longer-term impacts, and scale successes. Strong interpersonal relationships can foster cultures of co-creation and collaboration. Projects need enough time and funding to build mutual trust, participation and shared benefits. Part of this involves reflecting on power dynamics and imbalances in resources and needs.

5. Capacity strengthening

Development research has greater impact when capacity strengthening is embedded into projects, enhancing the ability of researchers and institutions in LMICs to work with research users. This includes building research management capacity, enhancing ownership and support for research uptake.

6. Operational processes

Efficient and proportional operational processes help research teams deliver projects successfully and achieve impact. A flexible approach to managing research helps researchers navigate changing environments and react to emerging opportunities, making work more relevant and impactful. Such flexibility can take different forms, including adaptive approaches to planning and decision-making, and flexible resource allocation to respond to emerging or changing needs.

Analysing UK international development research through the lens of REF 2021 impact case studies gives universities an opportunity to reflect on the lessons and best practices for research that yields development outcomes.

One vital lesson is that impact is not a linear process, stretching from researchers to users. Rather, our report highlights that supporting impact requires the research community to embrace flexibility, collaboration and continuous learning. It also emphasises the need for a long-term vision and strategies to maximise the transformative potential of research on development outcomes.

Alice Chadwick El-Ali and Andrea Padilla are senior research and policy officer and research and policy officer, respectively, at the UK Collaborative on Development Research.