Measuring success

Why study the research environment?

By 7 March 2016

It is a striking fact that in the top global university rankings developing countries’ universities are notable by their near absence. Out of the 500 best universities in the Shanghai Ranking 2015, only four come from Sub-Saharan Africa and they are all South African. Meanwhile, Iran and India are the only two lower-middle income countries to appear in the ranking, next to a stunning 87% of high income countries. Looking at the number of publications in social sciences, high income countries accounted for 80% of them in 2014. The question of why developing country universities perform poorly is one that is significantly under researched, particularly regarding capacity building processes. And it is therefore one that we will propose to tackle in this blog with a series of experiences on the research environment.


Figure 1: Distribution of top 500 universities and publications in social sciences per region Source: Scopus and Shanghai Ranking 2015

Why should this absence bother us? The actual research capacities of individuals or universities cannot be called into question, without an understanding of the research infrastructure and institutions which directly influence the research process by either facilitating – or slowing down – knowledge production. We know that by including more southern voices in the production of knowledge, the world will gain a much better understanding of local contexts. We also know that mobilising social science research for policymaking in developing and transition countries becomes easier, and more accurate, when research is produced locally. Together, these reasons make a convincing case for supporting and empowering local research processes.

The Global Development Network (GDN), through its mission to empower researchers in developing countries and mobilise research for policymaking, is convinced that implementing contextualised and informed policy is possible only when local academics in social sciences have access to a full range of services and options. To achieve this, it is essential to first study the national research environment to facilitate locally grounded, sustainable, social and economic development. This covers inter alia: recent and international literature and data; networks and collaborations throughout regions and disciplines; professional management and leadership of research; and of course diverse sources of funding.

The research capacity trap

Looking at this enabling environment is also necessary to help developing countries get out of the “research capacity trap”. A research capacity trap is a situation in which capacity building alone cannot foster the emergence of consistent and robust local research, especially when faced with the environmental factors impeding research. It is critical to look at reforming the research environment, infrastructure and institutions before any difference can be made.

In most countries the research environment is also a learning environment. Studying the research environment can yield concrete progress in understanding research capacity building. It is useful for faculty staff but also for research managers, international donors and policymakers to understand the way researchers work and the challenges they face in their activities.

A global method

Yet, there is currently no method to assess or measure the level of quality of a country’s research environment. Such a tool would highlight explicit areas with room for improvement for the research system, and create incentives to discuss and reform the higher education and research policy. GDN has started the program “Doing Research” with the aim of investigating the research environment in developing countries, defining it and proposing a multidimensional assessment tool to benchmark research systems and provide robust information to stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of their research environment[1].

In a two-year study working with 29 researchers in 7 teams, covering 11 developing countries around the world, GDN and its partners are working towards three objectives:

  1. Assessing key elements of the research environment in the 11 pilot countries as the first step to understanding contextualised policies and developing qualitative and quantitative measures of this environment.
  2. Secondly, engaging in a dialogue with the academic community, policymakers and civil society in these countries to expose the important shortcomings and barriers to research that had been identified.
  3. Finally, consolidating this information to build a framework that will enable GDN to document the research environment and the current state of research capacities in developing countries around the world.

Researchers’ insights

The researchers from the GDN project who have been studying their research environment have many interesting insights. This blog is the first of a series, supported by Research to Action, which will capture these insights and focus on how we should address gaps in the research environment. For instance, in  Peru, the social science research agenda is set by the state and lacks the independency to ask critical questions and develop a strong quality of knowledge. In Cambodia, the transition environment following the Khmer Rouge regime marked a gap between policy makers and social science researchers. The institutional crisis is also found in Niger, where the stagnation of social science research was partly due to the decline of the State following structural adjustment programs; however, this is somewhat compensated by donors and consultancies in a new form of competition. In South Africa, social sciences are present in institutions but researchers lack the skills and the networks to address societal issues and pursue the available funding.

GDN will conduct a synthesis of these stories and seek to build an overarching framework, respectful of local considerations, to assess and measure the research environment in a systematic way. In the meantime, we invite you to discover more via this blog space.


This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.