In September 2007, together with Frank Rijsberman, then Director General of the International Water Management Institute, Sanjini de Silva then Deputy Head of IWMI’s Information and Knowledge group, I co-authored the paper “Outcome Contracting: Show me the impact!”, a thinkpiece on how to be relevant and effective and not just a “drop in a bucket!”

I found the principles and ideas presented in that paper still extremely relevant if I look at the current reform efforts of the CGIAR and Agriculture Research in general, at the AAA framework that we are advocating, and our work on Public International Goods. So here is the paper again – good food for thought.

Let’s look at what it is all about: Scientific research has historically been assessed by the level of citations a publication or researcher has – the more the better being the mantra. The reasoning being that the “credible” researcher (or significant work) would automatically lead to citations or popularity: the more “credible” leading to more citations. Problems with this model are quite obvious, as it leads to a “publish or perish” mentality and encourages “popular” or trendy research. In addition, frequently cited publications are, at times, cited for their controversial nature, and not necessarily for their significance or impact in terms of research. But what does that mean for agricultural research? I am not arguing peer-review processes are to be discarded. They are important to ensure the scientific excellence of our work. But my argument: they are not sufficient.

The final product of agricultural research should, at the end of the day, have a measurable positive impact on the lives of the poor. If that is taken as a given, then we must reconsider our current evaluation models for agricultural scientific research. Various other strategies have been considered to address some of the shortcomings of the “publish or perish” model. However, most of these strategies aim to include the end-users either in the developing of the project or in training at the tail end of the project.

Is this enough? Is there not a better way to measure impact? How can we better link outputs to results? What about accountability?

The basis of the proposed “Outcome Contracting” model is accountability, both in terms of project design and funding. If the primary goal of our work and research is poverty reduction, should we not be held accountable for it? In the new model, researchers, along with the end users, partners etc, identify the impact pathway of any particular project, and decide up to which point the project can be held responsible. Accountability is established and funding, or partial funding, is awarded upon achieving the intended goal.

Can such an inclusive model be adopted in our new environment? How would that affect our current approach to research? And the funding?
Last week I participated in a workshop on “Data for decision making” hosted by the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation where I was quite inspired by how the funder was showing direct interest in understanding the factors that affect a project, and work together to find ways to mitigate any negative impact. Real interest was shown on the “impact” rather than just the “outputs”. More on that in a later post.

More work on this new inclusive model to reserach has been carried out by our Knowledge Sharing in Research Project.