Research cooperation in a new era

We need to talk more about research. About its intrinsic value, and its importance for development at large. Sometimes viewed as a costly subsidy of elites in poorer countries, aid to research has not always been a priority among donors.

When the relative share of aid declines, it becomes more important to use it where it is most likely to be additional. In terms of financial flows to developing countries, the largest sums are not directed to the public sector. Education is a sector of central importance, and the aid Sweden provides to education, particularly support for primary education, has been falling for many years. Policy options, and promising interventions, in aid to education have been discussed in a number of EBA reports.

While the links from first grade pupil to full professor is not always obvious, the weakest link in the primary-secondary-tertiary-research chain will limit the functioning of the other parts. We therefore need to pay more attention to the importance of building local capacity through investments in higher education, research as well as researchers. What role could research and aid to research provide in this setting? What kind of research do we need and how should that research be organised? These are the overriding themes in two recent EBA reports: “Research Aid Revisited – A Historically Grounded Analysis Of Future Prospects And Policy Options” by Sverker Sörlin and David Nilsson reflects upon what in the report is called “research aid” in a historical, contemporary and future-oriented perspective, through a focus on Swedish politics, policies and organisation of research aid; the report “Research in the New Global Development Agenda” by Måns Fellesson, is an account of Sweden’s 40 years of supporting capacity building, in particular in the form of PhD training programs.

The reports were launched at the EBA seminar Swedish Research Aid on May 29 and then as basis for discussions in two panels at the EADI conference Globalisation at the Crossroads Rethinking Inequalities and Boundaries in Bergen, Norway, August 21. Almost consensual views expressed at the seminars included that strengthening nationally owned research capacities might be more important than ever for low-income countries: in order to tackle how global challenges impact the local level and in order to produce context-relevant, sustainable and feasible innovations and solutions. This calls for an increase in the volume of research cooperation that is formulated and organised in ways that provide for equal opportunities and for symmetric cooperation. Collaborative research agendas between donor and partner countries need to be formulated in true partnerships and through genuine dialogue.

A research sector helps a nation climb the value chain ladder in the private sector, adapts knowledge production to local needs, provides a career path that makes tertiary education attractive, and improves the quality in tertiary education, which, in turn, is a precondition for high quality primary and secondary education. Research is also an integral part of all the development priorities as formulated in the SDGs. Thus, research, and universities at large, is too important to be left to richer countries.

Based on its long history of research cooperation, together with its political ambitions to face globally shared challenges, Sweden has a potential to play a leading role in developing an agenda for research aid in the SDG-era.