Evidence into policy

Sustainable development: Is scaling science the missing piece of the puzzle?

By 23/03/2022

Growing up in rural Botswana I was always acutely aware of social disparity. People living in towns and the city seemed to have much easier access to resources and services than us rural dwellers. Social equity has since become my life’s pursuit.

Today, as an early career researcher, publishing academic papers will never be the only measure of success for me. I want my research to contribute to making a tangible and positive impact on people’s lives. For that reason, I’m drawn to implementation science – converting research evidence into solutions, policies, and programmes that have a positive social impact.

Of course, I am aware of the challenges of research for development. It is complex, nonlinear, and always evolving. I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle because it involves so many different shapes and colours, and sometimes we must try different pieces until we find the one that fits. In that regard, implementation science is about testing or trialling solutions, seeing what works, and then scaling it.

But have you ever thought about the science behind the scaling of successful innovations, programmes, or policies? What informs the expansion process?

I hadn’t until last summer when I crossed paths with the concept of ‘Scaling Science’ at an International Development Research Centre (IDRC) workshop. Scaling Science is underpinned by insightful findings from a study of over 200 Southern research and innovation projects. What I learned that day had a profound impact on me and my work.

‘It’s easy to fall into the ‘bigger is better’ mentality’, the workshop facilitators explained. Often, we scale up interventions without paying attention to whether we’re positively scaling the impact of that intervention too. Is the impact sustainable at a larger scale? Is it equitable, or are different groups being affected differently?

When I heard this, I immediately thought of the popular backyard gardening initiatives aimed at improving food security, alleviating micronutrient deficiencies, and boosting household economic growth around the world. The initial successes and the promise of triple impact saw the backyard gardens movement scale up quickly. I remember an abundance of backyard gardens popping up in every community across Botswana. But today most are dry, dusty patches – especially in rural areas where water is scarce. Clearly the scaling aspect had not been fully thought through.

Scaling Science

Scaling Science encourages a more critical, systematic, and scientific approach to scaling. IDRC’s study of southern research and innovation has identified four guiding principles to support and guide this work.

First, the decision to scale must be justified. The argument here is that scaling should be a shared choice predicated on a balance of evidence and values – of both the innovator and the people who will be impacted by the programme or policy.

Second, it’s not all about maximum scale, it’s about optimal scale. Much like the backyard gardens, when something scales too quickly or without a critical and systematic approach, it can end up being wasted resource. Or worse, can end up negatively impacting people. Robert McLean and John Gargani posit that scaling produces a collection of impacts, therefore determining the optimal scale requires balancing between the size, depth, sustainability, and equity of impact.

Third, sustainable development can’t be achieved without collaboration and partnership. The same is true for scaling development impact. Scaling Science emphasizes the need for co-ordination between a diverse and evolving set of stakeholders in the ecosystem.

Fourth – and finally – dynamic evaluation, which views scaling as an intervention in itself that can be evaluated. Dynamic evaluation is about continuous learning before, during, and after scaling.

Post-pandemic there is an even greater impetus to optimize and scale: COVID-19 has disrupted and hindered progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and recovery strategies will need to be more cost efficient and effective to recover from the setbacks.

Could Scaling Science be the missing piece of the puzzle to achieve our sustainable development goals? Can it help us to re-set the development agenda and achieve sustainable and equitable development at optimal scale?

I encourage my fellow young researchers to explore the scaling science concepts – a good starting point is the book Scaling Impact: Innovation for the Public Good and The Scaling Playbook: A Practical Guide for Researchers.

As I think about how to apply this to my own research, I realise the importance of funders of research investing in and supporting this approach. And a new collective Call to Action to funders from a group of southern researchers and innovators sets out some important starting points to do this.

The Call to Action is a result of a scalingXchange between researchers and innovators across the Global South – to learn from their experiences. Based on this experience, the Call recommends eight actions to transform how funders support scaling efforts. Anyone can contribute a response to the Call to Action and join the conversation.

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