In the simplest terms, research is a process of creating new knowledge by following standardized and logical steps. A research output or new knowledge, in turn, helps us to deal with our societal problems and later guides our development. Despite that connection, we rarely see the development projects support hardcore research. Bangladesh Forest Department (BFD)'s "Sustainable Forests And Livelihoods" (SUFAL) project (2018−2023) aimes to be such a rare example when it launched the "SUFAL Innovation Grant" (SIG) programme earlier this month.
By engaging Bangladeshi individuals and institutions in forest research, this novel initiative will not only support the World Bank-funded USD 175 million SUFAL's goal and objectives, but would also positively impact the country's forestry sector as a whole by encouraging knowledge-based forest management and biodiversity conservation.
One of the recent examples of development project supporting research is the Bangladesh government's EEP/Shiree project. Implemented from 2008 to 2016, the Shiree had a very strong research and advocacy component. The Department of International Development (DFID) supported a project worth GBP 84 million, aimed to bring one million people out of extreme poverty. All partner NGOs of this project had fully-funded research officers who researched on extreme poverty issues, identified and endorsed by their own organisations. Renowned development experts from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom trained and mentored these researchers, which resulted into about 40 working research papers. Available on www.shiree.org, these research papers built an excellent knowledge-base on extreme poverty in Bangladesh, created by Bangladeshi researchers.
Earlier, BFD's Nishorgo Support Project (2004−2009) facilitated similar arrangement with USAID funding. An expert from East-West Center, Hawaii, USA mentored 23 Bangladeshi researchers, including BFD officers, to design and conduct research projects. This, later, helped them to write research articles on a wide range of forest management and conservation topics. This knowledge creation model ended with two fantastic books but not be carried forward in the follow up projects - "Integrated Protected Area Co-management" (IPAC) and "Climate Resilient Ecosystems and Livelihoods" (CREL) - funded by USAID between 2008 and 2018.
On mentoring researchers, the USAID-supported "Gobeshona Young Researcher Programme" (2015−2017) is an excellent example. This initiative of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh, helped 60 young Bangladeshi climate change researchers through training workshops to publish their research papers in good peer-reviewed journals. Each researcher also closely worked with a mentor, where almost everyone was from Bangladesh. Around 20 researchers managed to publish their research papers, making Bangladesh more visible in world of climate change research.
Although not a development project, the non-government funded research project of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences (BAS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) titled "BAS-USDA Endowment Program" is an exceptional example. As part of a long-term funding from USDA, BAS has been managing this endowment programme since 2010. Till now, it has invested about USD 4.4 million for 102 research projects aimed at solving Bangladesh's food security problems. Many Master's and PhD degrees were awarded and many research papers were published over the last decade via these projects.
The above examples show that Bangladeshi researchers can undertake and complete good research projects outside the academic institutions and can convey them properly. But, to do better, they need appropriate support system in place - both financially, through grants, and intellectually, through training and mentoring.
Nevertheless, using the research outputs in terms of policy and practice change is almost absent in Bangladesh. As a result, the real return from our investments in research remains unrealized, untapped.
The SUFAL's new grant scheme brings forth great opportunities, not only for our forestry sector, but also for Bangladesh's research system as a whole. It can show us how applied research can be done to better understand the real problems on the ground and to find real solutions. It can also test and validate the solutions in real situations. If found suitable, these solutions can be scaled up through policy instruments and programme interventions. In this way, the SUFAL can show us a rare example of "research-practice-policy linkage" over its lifetime. This could be a legacy of the largest-ever forestry sector project of Bangladesh.
To be a role model and to leave an inspiring legacy of knowledge-based forest management, the SUFAL may consider three approaches. In the first round of applications, SUFAL needs to award only a few diverse, good quality research proposals. This will allow the project to test, learn, improve, and establish an efficient research grants management system. Research grants should not be confused with competitive grants given to NGOs to do small-scale development projects. Intellectual elements in research projects make them different. In the past, some research grants programmes in Bangladesh started with a large number of awardees and faced challenges of ensuring quality, leading to poor outputs. Lessons from the first round of the SUFAL grants would thus make quality assurance system better.
It would be easier for the SUFAL to fund reputed and experienced Bangladeshi scientists who are predominately men. But encouragingly, the project does not want to take that path. That is why it targets to fund 30 to 50 percent projects to be led by women. The SUFAL should also encourage and fund younger researchers who are below 35 years old and have 10 years of research experience after the completion of master's or PhD degree, men and women alike, to lead research projects. In such cases, mentoring is crucial. A provision could be kept to have an experienced researcher in a research team as an expert or advisor or co-principal investigator, but not as a principal investigator. Such arrangement would be useful while investing in future research.
Recent analyses on Bangladesh's research system have shown that there is a need for improving the knowledge and understanding of researchers on research and its communication. Conventional classroom training, massive open online courses, and writing workshops or write-shops are useful to design quality research proposals and to communicate research once it is done. But our researchers also need to learn to translate their research into action – means to put a research finding into a new context and help decision and policy makers to take specific actions based on the study. Translating research into action is, therefore, crucial to make a research relevant, useful, and ensure its value for money. The SUFAL's research grant scheme, thus, can effectively work with researchers on designing, conducting, communicating, and, most importantly, translating research.
The United Nations declared 2020 a super year for nature and biodiversity. This year, we are supposed to decide on urgent, strong, effective global actions to protect our biodiversity. The novel coronavirus has surely put us in disarray. It has pushed away all other global crises like the unprecedented scale of biodiversity loss we have been experiencing. We now need to stay strong and focused to fight the virus. But, as the pandemic gets contained, we need to put our acts together to manage our forests and protect our biodiversity based on knowledge-informed actions as the SUFAL is rightly envisioning.
Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is a biologist-turned-development-practitioner with a keen interest in research and its communication. He is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. He tweets as @hmirfanullah