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Promoting impact in research and innovation

How can management structures and implementation processes increase innovation and impact for development? Download the synthesis report from our evaluation of the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Download the synthesis of our evaluation of GCRF programmes on the UK Government website

Management structures, implementation processes and pre-research context analysis can sometimes be portrayed as additional bureaucracies that impede research endeavours within scientific research and innovation (R&I).

However, findings from our evaluation of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) highlight how certain key management structures and implementation processes are associated with greater probabilities of reporting outputs and outcomes – two precursors of development impact.

What is the Global Challenges Research Fund?

The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCFR) is a £1.5 billion fund designed to create knowledge and drive innovation to address poverty by growing the capacity of the UK and developing countries.

Between 2021 and 2022, Itad evaluated six flagship investments funded by the GCRF. These flagships are large-scale programmes and initiatives specifically designed to mobilise interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral R&I to address development challenges and drive progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs).

The six programmes reviewed by the evaluation are:
1. Growing Research Capability (GROW) programme – £225m approx.
2. Interdisciplinary Hubs programme – £200m approx.
3. Future Leaders, African Independent Research (FLAIR) Fellowships – £18.3m approx
4. International Partnership Programme (IPP) – £152m approx.
5. Challenge Leaders initiative – £3.38m approx.
6. Four National funding stream allocated to UK higher education institutions through the higher education funding bodies – £224m approx.

By 2022, these flagship programmes represented a combined investment of approximately £824 million into R&I for development, around 55% of GCRF’s total £1.5 billion budget.

Overall assessment of GCRF’s flagship programmes

In partnership with RAND, AFIDEP, Athena and NIRAS-LTS, we assessed evidence on the extent to which GCRF programme processes supported excellent development challenge-led R&I.

The evidence and data from the six programmatic evaluations, surveys of award holders and POs were synthesised into an overarching assessment of GCRF’s management structures and implementation processes, and the extent of the fund’s progress towards outcomes.

Overall, the GCRF awards are making good progress towards desired outcomes and impacts, with the flagship programmes associated with greater progress than other types of programme.

The survey findings highlighted good reports of awards making early progress towards desired outcomes and impacts, as framed by the results areas set out in the GCRF Theory of Change.

New insights and knowledge and sustainable global R&I partnerships emerged as areas of most progress. Other results included new or improved management practices, knowledge, research findings, technology, methods and tools.

The only area showing less progress was knowledge translation into commercial or business products or services, perhaps reflecting the lower proportion of commercially facing awards in the fund portfolio.

Key takeaways

Specific management processes in awards and programmes help to promote outcomes, rather than adding bureaucracy.

Combined evidence from the survey and programmatic evaluations points to a range of key structures and processes as enablers of outputs and outcomes – in turn the precursors of development impact.

These included adaptive, proactive management at the fund’s programme and portfolio levels. Meanwhile, at the award level, having a strategic plan, theory of change and gender and inclusion plan was significant. These management processes help to promote impact as they are needed to mobilise multi-partner collaborations effectively. They are a worthwhile investment as collaboration with multiple partners, particularly with non-academic partners, is strongly associated with impact in our evidence.

Structured, impact-oriented programmes have more potential to add value and lay the groundwork for future investments

Through their ambition, scale and promotion of interdisciplinary and intersectoral work on development challenges, GCRF’s flagship programmes saw more outcomes than other types of programmes and offered unique opportunities for impactful R&I for development.

The programmes made a significant contribution to enabling engagement across a wide range of LMICs and thematic areas. Additionally, they helped to catalyse a step change in capacities and engagement with development issues in the UK R&I community, notably amongst UK institutions which have not traditionally worked in international development before, in line with GCRF’s aims.

More structured and impact-oriented than other GCRF programmes, the flagships offered a clear novel added value and laid the groundwork for any future ODA R&I investment of this type by DSIT (formerly BEIS).

Evolution from administrative-focused processes towards impact-oriented portfolio management also helps to build resilience

Experience helped funders of flagship programmes improve their processes over time and build resilience. At the funder level, staff resources for programme management were constrained early on, due to BEIS’ initial parameters on operating costs but became more flexible as the value of programmatic management became clearer. We saw significant innovation in processes developed by project award teams, especially in establishing and sustaining equitable partnerships and stakeholder engagement processes.

This helped build resilience to the challenges of what has been a turbulent period, with Covid-19 and related ODA budget reductions in 2020-21.

Building capacity and establishing durable, equitable partnerships can build resilience to shocks and improve impact

Flagship investments have shown strengths in capacity building and the establishment of durable equitable partnerships between UK and LMIC researchers and innovators.

Capacities for partnered ODA research with impact have been built in the UK as much as in LMICs. This includes increased involvement of Global South stakeholders as the fund has progressed, shaping calls at the PO level and proposals at the award level.

Another key strength is the quality of the partnerships and networks developed through GCRF, which have built resilience to shocks and positioned awards for impact. Despite these strengths, capacity building is not clearly defined at any level in the fund. This means that capacity development has not been fully mobilised as a pathway towards impact.


Download: Synthesis of the evaluation of GCRF programmes.

This report combines evidence and analysis from the individual programme evaluations and a fund-wide survey.

Read and download all GCRF resources on our project page