Science in the Developing World:  Workshop Results

For two days (17-18 Sep., 2015), over 70 researchers and students from a wide range of disciplines (including anthropologists, economists, engineers, epidemiologists, geographers, philosophers, physicists, sociologists, STS scholars, and political scientists) gathered at BSIA to discuss how to enhance research capacity in the developing world, with an eye toward enhancing research that will improve lives in the developing world.  Speakers presented challenges to doing such work (from conceptual disagreements over the more productive direction of research to institutional challenges such work faces) as well as opportunities for, and success stories of, doing such work.

We are well past the point where researchers can presume that research conducted on public health, medicine, agriculture, and new technologies in the developed world will be either sufficient or provide clear indication of how science and technology will be relevant to people in other cultures and contexts.  Further, it is generally understood that research must be informed by the needs of people whom it aims to help, rather than being pursued solely for internal disciplinary reasons.  All the researchers at the conference recognized the power and importance of paying attention to local contexts, even while utilizing international scientific research efforts and findings.  But even within a conceptual framework where attention to the local is presumed to matter, there remain important issues unresolved.


Key crystallizations over the course of the two days include the following:

1)  The importance of social science needs to be bolstered:

There is still an imbalance of respect for “hard” vs. “soft” science, despite the widespread recognition of the importance of social science for assessing and shaping impacts on the ground.  Including social scientists is often an afterthought to particular projects, even though such research can uncover important aspects of societal impact that researchers generally really want to know.  For example, Isaac Luginah spoke of both the success of the “yogurt mama” project (which helped women produce probiotic yogurt, particularly for HIV patients) in improving health, but it was social science that documented the need for additional education efforts, as many participants in the project felt so much better with the nutritional supplement of the yogurt that they stopped taking crucial medication, believing themselves cured. Without social science to uncover such aspects of the impact of research on the ground, what appear to be success stories in the short term can turn into failures in the long term.  Integrating social science into efforts like environmental impacts assessments is crucial if we want to actually assess all the important impacts of a particular activity (as Craig Janes emphasized). Further, social science can enrich our understanding of how science interacts with culture in different societies, and thus should be pursued for this reason as well.

2)  Colonial tendencies still persist:

When donor agencies and countries come into developing world contexts, they still tend to have preconceptions about what is needed in particular locations, which bound what they are willing to do and what they are willing to fund.  It is still hard to get such international actors to pay attention to local needs and priorities, whether the issue is the specifics of the research or the treatment of local research capacity.  This can be egregious, in the form of the KEMRI 6, where local researchers were systematically slighted and kept from opportunities and resources reserved for developed world researchers, despite commensurate training and expertise (as Denielle Elliot discussed).  This can be more subtle, where local priorities are neglected by donor agencies (in part depending on whether civil society is seen as robust, as Gemma Oberth presented).  In either case, actually respecting the expertise and insight available within a context is crucial for doing science well.

3)  New institutional models should be sought:

While it is rarer today that researchers will presume scientific findings and technologies will automatically travel and be readily implemented (with successful positive impact) in the diverse contexts in the developing world, there is still a presumption that the social institutions of the developed world, particularly around research, should be imitated and replicated within the developing world.  As the academy in the developed world experiences unprecedented strain, it is entirely unclear that the model of academic science, with scientists housed in disciplinary departments and publishing in specialist journals, is a suitable one to replicate across the developing world.  Yet, if we do not perform such a replication, it will be even more difficult for the developed world to recognize the expertise that exists in the developing world (without the badges of certification, such as disciplinary PhD’s and the requisite publications on CVs).  Nevertheless, new collaborative forms and institutional mechanisms for supporting research and generating accountability among researchers can be pursued and experimented with in the developing world.  Indeed, such efforts may discover lessons for research practices in the developed world.

4) Collaborative and participatory research practices are crucial:

Apparent throughout the workshop was the importance of collaborative and participatory research.  Not only was it important to include natural and social scientists in projects, but it was also apparent that it is extremely important to include local expertise (including from nonscientists) in projects.  Relevant local knowledge concerns not only local physical conditions (weather conditions, plant and animal communities, seasonal variations), but also expertise regarding the local cultural practices and institutional forms that can support or thwart research efforts.  The breadth of actors and locations needed to produce successful outcomes will vary, and this creates both a challenge and a tension.  It is always a challenge to know how broad one must cast one’s net (even using “snowball techniques”, which can be overly dependent on one’s starting location) in order to not leave anything crucial out.  But coordination problems increase as collaborations grow (particularly when collaborations cross institutional boundaries and forms, and include both academics and citizens).  At what point does addition to the collaboration detract from its effectiveness, because coordination becomes unwieldy?  This practical judgment, at the heart of collaborative projects, is central to a research project’s success.

5) Institutional barriers need to be overcome:

Throughout the two days, researchers noted barriers to doing good collaborative research in the developing world.  Home institutions are leery of developing partnerships with universities in the developing world, as doing so will rarely help the home institution’s perceived “standing” in a competitive academic market.  Visas for researchers from the developing world can be difficult to get.  Funding agencies can be focused on disciplinary efforts (either natural science or social science or health research, but not a mix of all three), making the home for interdisciplinary research unclear. Funding agencies can also have priorities that run askew to the interests in a particular context.  Finally, lessons learned in one context often are not remembered in another (as Ross Upshur noted).  Even though the local matters, some knowledge does travel across contexts well, but if we forget the “lessons learned” completely, we will not be able to note where general lessons (or methods or practices) do translate well.  Because of the imbalance of resources (and power) between the developed and developing world, leaders within research communities need to identify and seek to redress institutional barriers.


The workshop made palpable:

1) the need for science in the interest of publics in the developing world for humanitarian and justice reasons

2) the presence of capacity for such research in the developing world, albeit incomplete and under-supported

3) the success of genuinely collaborative research efforts in the developing world, which marshal existing capacity in the developing world and in the developed world (esp. resources) and enhance capacity in the developing world (while focusing capacity in the developed world for such work)

4) the need for further institutional change in the developed world to make such collaborations less difficult to achieve

Pursuing this agenda will require leadership, energy, creativity, and judgment. Being strategic is obviously needed, but how in practice to create the changes needed at the institutional level remains unclear. There are resource and power imbalances that need to be addressed. But where the levers are to address them may be a matter of local strategy rather than general statement.