020 – Research and Impact in Challenging Contexts

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
020 – Research and Impact in Challenging Contexts


IDEMS supports researchers at a number of research institutions in low resource environments, and in this episode David and Lucie discuss some challenges that these researchers are up against. In challenging contexts such as these, unique opportunities can arise.

[00:00:00] Lucie: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. My name’s Lucie Hazelgrove Planel, and I’m an anthropologist and social impact scientist, and I’m here with David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS.

Hi, David.

[00:00:18] David: Hi, Lucie. Looking forward to another discussion.

[00:00:22] Lucie: Good. So there were a few topics which sort of came up that I wanted to delve into a bit deeper. So one of these is the challenging sort of context in which our colleagues in West Africa work. So I’d love to hear more about that. But then also there’s this idea of impact. So how to do research with impact and perhaps why.

[00:00:45] David: Is that one podcast or two? Maybe we’ll find out.

[00:00:48] Lucie: Exactly, we’ll find out. What about the situation of West Africa then? So you’ve said yourself that you grew up in Niger, but you weren’t an academic there, this was at school.

[00:00:58] David: My father worked at an international research centre there, so I was there from 11 to 18. And so I suppose I can speak more knowledgeably about Western Kenya, where I was an academic and I went there, worked as a local lecturer, I went for six months and stayed for six years.

So that’s a context I understand very deeply. What I found surprising is how, despite the amazing differences across the continent, I’ve been able to relate with academics across the continent having very similar challenges in ways where… well, they come back to some of the basic principles of trying to do high quality academics within low resource environments. And so some of these are very context specific and, and I’ll maybe be able to dig into a few, which I’m aware of, but most things really come back to academia is incredibly competitive.

And if you’re in the UK there’s lots and lots of institutions and they’re all competing with one another to attract students, attract funding.

[00:02:13] Lucie: Yeah, I know when I was in academia, it felt very, just as a student, but it still felt very competitive.

[00:02:19] David: Yeah.

[00:02:20] Lucie: We’re aware of that.

[00:02:21] David: The thing you’ve got to remember is, within this, if you’ve got a low resource university, which is maybe serving many students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to education. What are they competing on? And how can they compete in the same way? And the simple answer is that you cannot compete like for like. I am deeply grateful for the time I spent in Western Kenya at Maseno University, and what I was able to do there, I’m really proud of. It’s probably one of the periods of my life I’m most proud of.

I was able to help individuals at all levels at which I was interacting and really have an impact. But my international academic career was really damaged by that. You know, my first postdoc was at Oxford University based on the maths I was doing, and I was not then able to keep up with that maths while I was in Kenya because it wasn’t the need and yet the need for my skills and my time and for me to do things was so immense. And so I came out well known in other areas. But the dedicated intellectual time I needed to put in to stay at the top of the field, after two years being based in Kenya I realized I had a choice to make. I could either stay in Kenya and be useful, directly see the impact of my work on individuals’ lives. Or I could continue my academic career as a pure mathematician, working in algebraic geometry, doing algebraic geometry research, which I loved. I have no shame of loving that pure maths research and it was something which I valued so deeply. But I made the conscious choice to focus on impact. So I guess these two things are really related.

[00:04:23] Lucie: Yes, I know. I was just thinking, oh, well, we’ve come back to that. But so one of the reasons, though, if I understand correctly, one of the reasons that the low resource environment is difficult I’ve heard that within the structures, in Europe, for example people often use PhD students as teaching assistants or something, whereas that doesn’t really happen, the same substructure doesn’t happen to the same extent.

[00:04:45] David: It’s not just that, I mean, certainly when one of my top students who went out, got a Fulbright scholarship, went to Urbana Champaign for his PhD, came back, he was actually offered a permanent position there because of some of the teaching work he’d done so well at, but he decided no, he wanted to go back to Kenya. So the first course he had to teach was a first year or second year undergraduate course with five, six hundred students and no tutorial assistants.

A similar sized course in Edinburgh has something like twenty teaching assistants, with two lecturers. Now, of course, there is just a financial element of, well, they have more courses that need to be taught than they have staff. So actually there’s not enough staff power to cover all the teaching requirements.

[00:05:38] Lucie: In somewhere like Kenya?

[00:05:39] David: In Kenya. But more than that, it is just the element that the whole system, for it to work, it has to be more resource efficient. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. It’s a real privilege to be in a situation where you can have such large amounts of resources put towards your courses, as happened in the higher resource environments. So I’m not a believer that you should therefore reduce the numbers. I think there’s a great, not just incentive, but there’s a great rationale behind actually trying to get low resource academic institutions to be able to give a high quality education more cost efficiently. If that can be achieved, then that is a way where they can now compete in some sense. And so the question is where can they get to?

Will you be able to give a better education by having more human resource? Of course, that goes without saying, but actually the innovation that comes from the low resource environments is incredible because you have to innovate if you want to give a decent education. And this is what Mike, when he went back did, and now the innovations he’s taking are spreading because they’re effective in ways that you couldn’t get that spread in higher resource environments because of the competition.

[00:07:08] Lucie: That’s interesting.

[00:07:10] David: In some ways, in Kenya, it’s very interesting. There are universities that compete and that try to out compete their peers and they try to compete a little bit internationally. These are the highest ranked African institutions, maybe, but they’re way down in the university rankings. And they do feel the competition with their peers, but many of the younger universities don’t. They’re just overwhelmed by the need. And so if they can collaborate, their neighbouring university is similarly overwhelmed, so if they can work together, they can both give a better education, and they can help each other to do a better job in their environment.

They’re not really competing ever for funding or for grants. They are maybe competing with the old institutions like University of Nairobi. And so there there is maybe some competition between the young universities and the old universities because the old universities tend to acquire a lot of the collaborations, they have a reputation. Whereas the young universities are often very isolated, and so for them collaborating locally can be much more effective.

And so that’s something which I think is really interesting, and I do feel that there is this opportunity for a more collaborative approach to education to emerge from that. And that’s something that I believe everybody in their context could benefit from. And I think thinking about instead of having a university ranking system as being how people are judged, I wonder what other mechanisms and metrics could be used to be able to encourage more collaborative academia.

I guess we’re getting to this idea that if you focus on research for impact or academia to have social impact in different ways or to impact society in different ways, well then the mechanisms are very different than if you’re actually considering academia for excellence.

[00:09:14] Lucie: Well exactly, so we’d discussed this before, that we’d noticed that quite a lot of academia, at least in the agricultural related fields, they are very much orientated towards what is going on in the country, and trying to improve it, very explicitly.

[00:09:28] David: Many, many young universities across Africa, especially in rural contexts, they make a conscious effort to serve their community. They see that they’re serving their community. Now, of course, historically in Europe, universities did the same, much more than they do now.

[00:09:48] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:09:48] David: Historically, in Europe, universities were playing that role in interacting with their community and serving their community, as a hub of intellectual knowledge which people could tap into and use. That was very much the original old approaches. And some countries have this more than others. I don’t know how well it works now, but I noticed this when I was in Germany.

[00:10:15] Lucie: Yeah?

[00:10:15] David: The German academic system is very ivory tower in many ways, but it is much less competitive, and that leads to, in the sense that you have your universities in many different regions, and although there are times at which they’re competing with one another, quite often they’re just, well, each region has its own university, and so they’re not in competition for government funding in the way that UK universities are.

There’s a sort of different nature, and I do feel that in many ways, within that there are elements of collaboration which I observed when I was there, which I found very inspiring. And in Ethiopia, I believe, when they were looking for models of academic cultures, Germany was one of the ones, I think South Korea was another one that they, they investigated, where they actually went and they observed and they tried to learn as they were really rapidly expanding their academic structures. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Ethiopia working with academics there and it’s really amazing how they’re trying to build the academic structures, and I believe they’re building them rather differently.

They’re looking much more collaboratively internally in the country. And you often have universities that are, if you want out competing their peers, collaborating then to try and help others to do better. There is a much more collaborative spirit there in ways, which I find very refreshing and inspiring.

[00:11:48] Lucie: So in terms of having research with impact then, there’s the structures themselves which can help support collaboration and therefore better research and more useful research, perhaps. What about at the more individual level at the project level?

[00:12:02] David: So I think the structures supporting collaboration, I think it’s more that the structures are not set up to be competitive with one another, rather than necessarily supporting collaboration. But I think the main thing is, which we’ve touched on but maybe not said enough about, it is just the demands on people in those academic systems. This is something where it’s difficult to comprehend from the outside just how much you have to deal with on a day to day basis even.

[00:12:40] Lucie: So yeah, I’m sure like a lot of academics in the UK would say well we’ve got loads of administration to do, we’ve got students always coming to us every day with big questions, small questions, any sorts of questions, and then they have their mental health questions which don’t arise as often perhaps in Africa at the moment.

[00:12:56] David: But there’s a different order of magnitude of students. In the UK you have your students who you have to look after and different universities have different numbers. But I remember some of my master’s students, they’d finished their master’s, they were now staff at the university, they were about to start their PhDs, and they started off really helping the students.

And then they got the reputation for really helping the students, and then they were overwhelmed with the hundreds of students that were queuing outside their door on a daily basis. And they had all the other responsibilities that were thrown at them, and many of them after sort of building that reputation then found themselves hiding from the students.

Students could never find them. And they found themselves falling into exactly the same mode of operation that many of their colleagues had already been at. And so as they got a little bit more senior and they got more responsibilities thrown in, then they couldn’t spend that time with the students because the need of the students was so great.

And this is the thing which I find happened to me. It happened to many of my colleagues there. The need is overwhelming. And so trying to meet the need, many people describe it as a sort of bottomless pit. You know, everything you do is a drop in the ocean compared to what needs to be done. And so eventually, the efforts often feel like they’re not worth it, because it’s such a large effort. And this is where my admiration for so many of my colleagues working in these environments is just immense.

Because of what they do do, where they year in, year out, still keep doing things, within their context, which are so demanding for them, in a way where, it may not be perfect, but it is incredibly impressive once you actually see what happens on the ground. And some of the other things they have to deal with are, you know, meetings.

Internationally, we have this, I’ve seen this with colleagues internationally at UK universities and beyond. There’s always this feeling that there’s just too many meetings.

[00:15:11] Lucie: Yep, definitely.

[00:15:12] David: It’s a good use of your time, but they are quite efficient. Meetings in international institutions, they start when they’re supposed to start, they finish when they’re supposed to finish. It’s simple things like that. You can program them, you can program things around them. A lot of the things that I got done, I just had to spend the whole morning waiting outside the Vice Chancellor’s office, and that was normal. Now, I’d take other work and do other work while I was there sitting waiting for it. But just having to have the time to be able to just sit in the waiting room until someone was available to meet you for 15 minutes, that was normal. And if you don’t do that and I’ve had colleagues who have chosen not to do that, well, then nothing they propose ever advances because actually it’s a very human decision making process, and you need those human contacts.

Understanding how to work within the system to get things done, you can do amazing things. I set up degree programs when I was a junior lecturer. I set up an e campus because there was a need and the vice chancellor was pushing for it and I said, okay, well, if you need, I can help. But I was… I was there, I put myself in that position, I learned how to work within the system, to be able to sit, wait patiently, get other things done, I wrote papers while I was, you know, sitting there waiting for things to happen. You’ve got to have that attitude to be able to be happy to do that and to recognize that things are inefficient in many different ways, and working efficiently is not always appreciated in certain ways.

Getting to the stage where, if I think now, you’ve seen my calendar, you know my calendar. Yeah. I could not do this if I was based at an African institution. This would just not be possible to get that level of efficiency.

[00:17:04] Lucie: Back to back meetings.

[00:17:06] David: Back to back meetings, and so on. And that’s not a bad thing. I mean, I learned a lot about how good it is to be opportunistic about that, to make things happen when they can go, to then pull back when it’s not the right time. So you’re not always in the driving seat, you’re not organizing everything, you’re not planning everything out. And there’s a lot to be said about how this, from an international perspective, it looks really ineffective and inefficient.

[00:17:38] Lucie: No, but there’s a flexibility and things just fall into place. Absolutely.

[00:17:42] David: Exactly, somehow, although in the organization, things are inefficient, actually, in the implementation, suddenly, very quickly, certain things can get done that need to get done in a way that in other contexts, it can be very frustrating that it’s sort of blatantly obvious what needs to be done, but there’s too much red tape that it cannot be done. Understanding that these are not bad things, as with everything, there’s positives and there’s negatives. But it becomes almost impossible for people who are having to go through that to also be meeting the demands and the expectations of international academics.

[00:18:22] Lucie: Well, exactly. So that’s a question that I was going to ask. Do many academics, well, we’re talking about Kenya, do they get the opportunity to actually do research or are they teaching like 100 percent of their work time?

[00:18:35] David: Well, it’s very interesting. Many would do their research through their students and so a lot would depend on how good their students are. Now, of course, one of the challenges is the really good students tend to go out internationally, and I supported a number of students to do that. Some good students stay locally. But they tend to work for a time while they’re doing their studies. So they’re not therefore moving forward as fast as you would want, or in the same ways that you’d want. Again, it depends on the nature of your research. If I wanted to get a pure maths student to be really good in that context, I don’t believe I could.

Me, personally. I do know people who have, and have great admiration for them. I know colleagues David Saviri, a colleague of mine at Makerere University in Uganda, was at one point the head of department, and he was there, at one of East Africa’s biggest, best universities, and he was still finding time to make his own research happen. And we’ve had discussions over the years, and one of my recent discussions with him, we both sort of talked about our mutual admiration, and it was very interesting that we’d known each other quite a long time, and I’d always admired how he had managed to, despite his success within the institutions, keep going with his pure maths research and actually make sure that was happening.

And he always admired how I’d managed to leave my pure maths research behind and get really applied and do impactful research, and work in an area of impact. And the point is these two are in some sense mutually exclusive and we had mutual respect for both approaches. But these are the sort of hard choices that people have to make that, of all the people I know he is maybe one of the most successful at continuing to do high quality maths research in a challenging environment.

Now, I have to sort of put a slight caveat here. Makerere is one of the most established universities in East Africa. University of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were both born out of it. Probably if you’re going to be able to do that, it is maybe the environment where the structures are in place which could enable it. It had a mathematician a few years back, a wonderful guy, who was the vice chancellor, and so the structures actually understand what’s needed to sort of do mathematics in these environments. So the fact that he was able to do it in Makerere doesn’t mean that others could do it in their context.

But even so, I’m so impressed at how he managed to do it there. He’s got colleagues of his who are very good and who are on national committees to do this and women in science on that, there’s just such a need for their skills and their expertise on things which are of great importance to society. There’s the opportunity to do things of great impact and meaning. And yet it all comes at a cost. It’s only 24 hours in the day.

As academics in high resource environments, you don’t get these choices as much. If you do get offered an opportunity to do something which has great impact and meaning, many academics would seize that. But it doesn’t come along that often in the high resource environments because it would tend to come to people who are maybe further in their careers more established, who have already gone through and built up a infrastructure and, and so on, because there’s more people around.

I want to get back to the West African context because I’m conscious I’ve really focused on East Africa because I know that better. I’ve spent more time embedded in academic institutions there. But in the West African context, it’s very interesting because actually the academic standards are higher in general than in East Africa.

[00:22:33] Lucie: That’s so interesting.

[00:22:34] David: There’s various different reasons and there’s some regional level structures that have been put in place meaning that the academic progression is not at the university level, it’s at these regional organisation levels. That’s led to all sorts of reasons why actually the academic quality has been valued over quantity in a way that actually a lot of East Africa, there’s been an explosion of quantity of people coming through. And again, neither of these is necessarily better or worse. I can’t make a judgement call. But they are different, so to recognise they’re different is important. And so academics in West Africa, I tend to find, are of a very high academic standard, but they are faced with a whole set of different challenges, which I don’t understand very well. There are elements of isolation, as particularly in some of the French West African countries we work in, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali.

[00:23:39] Lucie: Isolation, sort of, from their colleagues, even within countries?

[00:23:42] David: Exactly, from international colleagues.

[00:23:44] Lucie: From international colleagues, okay.

[00:23:45] David: I’m thinking particularly international colleagues because many of them have those collaborations, but it’s sort of, difficult to invite people to Niger. Not many people are willing to travel there. It’s difficult to build those collaborations in the same way that sort of somewhere like Kenya or even anywhere in East Africa, it’s so much easier. You invite a colleague to go to Kenya, it’s easy. You invite them to Niger or Mali and, you know, generally it’s a minority who are really keen on this.

So those connections are harder to build and to maintain. It’s not to say they don’t happen, they do, but they’re hard. So there’s the element of isolation in there, which some people deal with extremely well, and many deal with by keeping connections where they go out quite often. The academic institutions, as institutions I find, tend to be relatively stronger and so they have elements of infrastructure set up, which help support, but they tend to have challenges around, I mean, even just pass rates and this sort of thing are extremely challenging. Actually, keeping the academic standards high comes at a cost. In The Gambia very recently, where we were meeting and discussing, because the end of school exams are tied to the whole region, their pass rate as a country was incredibly low.

It’s not unique to The Gambia. I mean, this happened in Ethiopia just the last couple of years as well. Actually trying to get good academic standards, which is desirable, can come at an extreme societal cost.

[00:25:37] Lucie: Well, exactly. So what happens, I mean, if pass rates are really low then what happens?

[00:25:41] David: Ethiopia, it’s incredible. They’ve got this whole remedial program set up, where… Ethiopia as country, I still find inspirational. I’m not saying they get everything right. Nowhere does. But they do do things at a scale people don’t realise. It’s the second most populous African country after Nigeria.

Nigeria is just huge. But Ethiopia is the second most populous. And they do things at a scale which is inspirational to me anyway. To think through how they are able to make decisions which affect such large numbers of people. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of challenges as people know internationally at the moment in Ethiopia, but there are elements of their academic system and how they’ve been doing it and what they’ve been building in which are just so inspirational.

And I suppose let me come back to really maybe finish this off with this element of tying together the challenges that academics face in these varied environments with the opportunities related to doing research for impact. What I find is that, and I believe this quite deeply, that actually our traditional academic approaches are really set about this idea of excellence as being competitive and exclusive.

Whereas actually if you think about research as being more inclusive and being collaborative, it opens up opportunities, I think, to do research for impact, which could be so much more meaningful. The point is that actually, in some cases, It might not matter as much. So I’ll take a very final example, which I keep coming back to because I love it, of human urine in Western Niger and

[00:27:48] Lucie: Fuma Gaskiya, yeah.

[00:27:49] David: Fuma Gaskiya. And, okay, there’s nothing new about the fact that human urine, as a fertiliser, it could add value to crops. I mean, this is scientifically known for a long time, but there’s so much interesting research if you now think about this from a transdisciplinary perspective. What’s the religious views and how does this fit in to the culture, to the religion, to the science, to the actual implementation properties?

Start thinking about how you actually integrate this into society. And there are elements which cut across and which are transdisciplinary, but which are needed if now you’re able to say, well actually it could benefit farmers in this part of the world to be using this resource they’re not using. There’s scientific evidence which would argue that this would be beneficial, but it’s not known whether it’s acceptable, whether it can fit into the systems, the systems approach, systems thinking.

[00:28:50] Lucie: When you’re talking about trying to do research that’s collaborative or thinking of research as good, thinking of good research as collaborative research and the possibilities that comes with, I was exactly thinking of systems, completely changing the system basically.

[00:29:03] David: And this is potentially really transformative research. How can research about transformation not be good academic research? The only reason that these sorts of things are not valued more is because we have such tight disciplinary focuses and it…

[00:29:20] Lucie: Yeah.

[00:29:20] David: …doesn’t necessarily fit into a particular discipline. So think about it from another perspective and what I’m really excited about is that the challenges that are faced by academics in these environments are really opportunities for them to redefine high quality research as being something which is maybe less disciplinary and more holistic. And I think if we recognised high quality research in that way, and we built the structures to do that, I believe the same sort of approaches would be of value all over the world.

And maybe in the future, we could actually build international research teams which are prioritising this much more, and academic structures within international institutions, which could learn how to build academic structures that support transdisciplinary research. Hype dream stuff. But It is something where the challenges they’re facing, I believe the only way to out compete is to innovate.

[00:30:23] Lucie: Yes.

[00:30:23] David: This is the thing, and I think…

[00:30:25] Lucie: It’s important to find new ways of doing things.

[00:30:28] David: Find new ways of doing things, and I’m inspired by the fact that I know people doing this.

[00:30:33] Lucie: Exactly, so a lot of our colleagues, they’re really inspirational.

[00:30:37] David: Absolutely, I could go on forever about that, but I think that’s probably the place to end. Taking this really, really challenging environment and thinking about academics in that and seeing how some people are rising to that challenge through innovation and through thinking about research differently, that’s what I’d love to support and I’d love to be able to do more.

I’d love to be able to get them more international recognition because I think they’re onto something. That through their challenging environment, they’re actually finding ways to do things which could have a global importance and global impact. But it’s hard. They’re doing it by necessity. Because their environment, they cannot compete if they try to compete on an equal footing.

[00:31:28] Lucie: And they can’t just sit back and, as you said previously, have a sort of nice easy life as an academic. It’s not really an option.

[00:31:35] David: Some people do, and many, many do, and they find an easy life, not necessarily as an academic, but an academic in their environment, where then they’re just part of the system. But the people who are really reinventing, they’re the ones who inspire me, because they’re doing things and they’re coming to things in a way which is, I think, so important and so refreshing, you know, coming from an international academic background as well. I just, I find it… this is why I stayed for six years.

When I went in for six months and I came back out and I sort of was at Oxford doing my maths and I loved it and I thought this isn’t work, this is a hobby. What a privilege to have this nice office, to be here doing something I enjoy which is of absolutely no use to man nor beast.

And then I went back in and I was inspired by the people I was working with, by the students I had and by the fact that actually, maybe I could be a useful member of society. I got that, but I was always a little bit of an outsider because it was always clear that when I wanted to, when I needed to, I could walk away. The colleagues who inspire me, they’re there, they’re in for the long haul. And what they’re doing is just fantastic. Anyway, that’s enough. We should, we should call this a close and maybe we can carry on with these topics on another podcast.

[00:33:03] Lucie: That sounds good. Thank you so much, David. Thanks for your time.