Evaluating Research

I spent two decades doing research on the chemistry/ecology interface, and managing grant funding programmes for the South African science council that supports university and industry research.

I also specialised for some time in knowledge management, and continue to work across the world on evaluations of research programmes, research impact and knowledge translation efforts.

This accumulated experience has convinced me that we have to do much more to conceptualise and evaluate research through a systems lens. Research performance incentives and evaluations seldom acknowledge this, impeding efforts to solve complex and urgent real-world problems that cross disciplinary, sector, stakeholder, geographic, demographic and even planetary boundaries.

Science cannot afford arrogance. It has to be embedded in society in a manner that is respectful of, and knowledgeable about its contexts, ethics and morals, needs and perspectives. Scientists have to be aware of the priorities, pressures and politics that affect the potential use of their work.

Even more importantly, they have to conduct their work with holistic perspectives on the societal dynamics and planetary convulsions that affect us all.

In today’s world, the systematic and appropriate advancement of research and innovation in science and technology is crucial for the success of nations. I agree with the renowned economist who stated that a country can be called “developed” only if its high income is based on superior knowledge that is embodied in technologies, and in institutions that act collectively in accumulating and using such knowledge.

Research for innovation and evidence is therefore especially important in the Global South. Here, much more has to be done to generate and manage knowledge flows, and apply insights and innovations in concert to empower institutions, nations and regions.

Evaluation has to be conducted in a manner that supports these efforts, and that helps research to fulfill its promise to be a force for good in the world.