For the past seven years I have been working with an international agricultural research institute doing what is often called “research for development”, but I’m about to leave and embark on the next step in my career.  And so it seemed like the right time to reflect on science, development, and the relationship between the two.

Science and development are two of the grand enterprises upon which hopes for a better world are pinned.  Typically they are understood to be distinct pursuits.  Science is a methodology for systematically creating knowledge and producing discoveries.  Development is the pursuit of actions—projects, programs, budgets, investments, policies and so on—aimed at improving well-being, especially for the poorer and more disadvantaged segments of society.  When people consider them together, they are usually see them as being sequential:  science produces knowledge which then gets taken up by development and used to improve well-being.

If understood narrowly, the relationship is about new and improved technologies:  some new, low-cost water filtration technology that can be used in remote villages, a mobile phone app that lets farmers share information on the prices being offered in different markets, new seed varieties that will bring the next green revolution, etc.  Thankfully, the assortment of outputs which science can deliver to development is usually understood to be broader than just physical technologies.  Whether through big breakthroughs or incremental insights, science also produces knowledge that can shape technical practices:  new educational methods, or new farming methods, or new public health methods.  This is the “research for development” approach that I referred to above.

If we widen our perspective further still, analysis itself can be the useful output that science provides to development—not a technology or a new practice necessarily, but an understanding of how the world works, and of challenges and opportunities for improving human well-being.  Science identifies a problem; development addresses the problem.  Science identifies an opportunity; development implements activities to take advantage of that opportunity.  Climate change is a good example, with climate science building ever deeper knowledge on the problem with all its complex dynamics; science delivers this knowledge to development which then, hopefully, takes action in the form of polices, investments and so on.  Girl child education is another example:  a growing body of scientific evidence established that the level of education of the women in a household is one of the most important predictors of the future well-being of the children of that household, and many NGOs, funding agencies and governments have responded by investing in girls’ education.

But whether science is delivering technologies, or technical practices, or knowledge itself, the relationship is that of delivery.  The metaphor I often hear is the flowing stream:  science is upstream; development is downstream.  Science and development are treated members of a relay race team:  science passes the baton to development.  Science rings development’s doorbell and says, “Here’s the pizza you ordered.”  Sometimes development didn’t even order a pizza but science shows up anyway and says, “Here.  You should try this.”  Science delivering pizza to development is a good thing and I think development should eat more pizza.  The problem, however, is that science and development should be doing a lot more together.  Development should be asking science, “What time do you get off work?”

Assumptions about science and development

The delivery model of science’s relationship to development is informed by, and in turn reinforces, an impoverished understanding of both science and development.  It sells science short in that it places the emphasis on the discoveries and undervalues science’s most important contribution, the methodology.  Science is a system that involves a set of principles and methodology for systematically unearthing hidden knowledge and for learning about the world, but there is nothing inherent in science which requires that it only be done by professionals.  There are only so many professional scientists to go around, and the knowledge system that is science could produce so much more if it could be applied, in some measure, by everyone.

This delivery model of the science-development relationship is also symptomatic of misguided assumptions about development.  For more than three decades, people have been talking and writing about bottom-up approaches and participatory development, yet beneficiaries are still seen as beneficiaries more than as protagonists.  Development, like science, is professionalized:  various categories of development professionals deliver it to beneficiaries.

In the first decade of the surging interest in participatory approaches, people writing about participation often emphasized that it is about people having control over the processes that determine the course of their future.  A project that is called “participatory” merely because people are contributing labor to the project is not really participation.  People merely sharing opinions and “participating” in discussions in a workshop or public meeting is not in itself participatory if those people have no say in the decisions to emerge from those discussions and in the topics being discussed.  A development project is not participatory if the people concerned had no control over the problem analysis that led to the project and over the planning that designed the project.

Here is where it is easiest to see a natural role for science in development processes:  contributing to the analysis of problems and the design of solutions.  These are critical steps in the development process.  The common arrangement in which a scientific approach to these steps is separated from the rest of development decision making—keeping science as a professionalized enterprise that delivers its analyses and knowledge to development—ensures that development will not be fully participatory.  This arrangement keeps the powerful knowledge system that is science out of the hands of people who could benefit from it.

My point is this:  science should be an integral part of the development process; it should be at the heart of how communities and societies, in participatory processes, work collectively to improve themselves.  Science is a tool that can be used by communities to address problems and create prosperity.  But it is not only a tool.  The scientific process should be at the heart of what development really is and how it is done.

The upshot of not just delivering pizza

This idea has a few implications.  Funding agencies are already pushing research institutes to focus more on downstream impacts; to pay more attention to how scientific knowledge is delivered to development and to take on more of the characteristics of development organizations.  This is not really what I’m suggesting, because this still a delivery model of the science-development relationship; the only difference is that now funding agencies are increasingly asking research organizations and development organizations to work more closely together, or even to bring the two enterprises into the same organization to improve the process of delivery.  The stream still exists but now the research institutes are being asked to walk their discoveries downstream.

My suggestion rather is that science should be embedded in development; not research for development but research in development.  I’m talking about research and development being integrally linked—being part of the same thing.  It should not be a stream or a relay race with a baton.  The relationship I’m suggesting is closer:  more like inhaling and exhaling.  It is the cyclical development process of action and reflection systematized with a scientific approach.

The growing push for policy experiments and development projects to be carried out as randomized control trials or some other kind of planned comparison is a step in the right direction, but this is still not quite what I mean.  I’m not talking about having the professional scientists and development professionals and policy professionals leading research for development or even research in development.  I’m talking about science from the bottom up; I’m talking about communities using science at the heart of participatory processes that they control.

There is nothing particularly new in what I’m saying here.  In the field of natural resource management, this kind of approach has been discussed for years as “adaptive management”.  Similarly, Robert Chambers wrote in the 1980s about the experimental mentality of poor rural people, many of whom are ever ready to systematically carry out experiments to improve their livelihoods as long as the level of risk is not too high[i].  He called for development to build on this.  For scientific organizations, I think one of the implications is that they should invest as much in taking the scientific process to the grassroots as they invest in professional research by scientists aimed at producing discoveries to deliver to the grassroots.  For those of us with a scientific background, the implication is that the most precious gift we have to offer is not the next amazing pizza that we’re going to deliver; it’s the knowledge of how to cook.  I want to see science and development side by side in the kitchen, making pizza together.


[i] Chambers, Robert.  1983.  Rural development: Putting the Last First.  Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, England.  See especially pp. 82 to 92.