Global Research Funders Need to Commit to Full Flexibility. Now.

Ruth Levine

Millions of people across the world are thinking about data and evidence today as if their life depends on it — because it does. The exponential increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases within a state or province, the impact of “flattening the curve,” and the evidence about how belief about one’s personal vulnerability affects behavior are all on our minds — and we are becoming more aware every day of how essential data collection and research are to those who are making consequential decisions, whether they be presidents, healthcare workers, business owners, or parents.

In the months and years ahead, decisions about the optimal path toward economic recovery will require evidence about consumer behavior, labor markets, and macroeconomic relationships. Countries and organizations with access to valid and timely information, combined with the capacity to use it, will be the most resilient in the face of today’s challenges.

The value of evidence for effective policymaking is precisely the reason why many foundations and bilateral agencies have invested for decades in research in the Global South, carried out by in-country, regional, and international research organizations, as well as academic centers around the world. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and many more have been steadfast funders of excellent — and even Nobel Prize-winning — research. While biomedical and public health studies account for the largest share of that support, funding has also gone to research in the physical, environmental, agricultural, and social sciences.

In this moment of crisis response, funders must act quickly to protect these key research investments and give them the opportunity to pay off.

Think of what this global disruption means for ongoing research. The coronavirus pandemic threatens current and planned studies, particularly those that involve fieldwork. Research organizations with in-country operations such as survey enumerators are ceasing work or quickly pivoting to alternative types of data collection. Entire research programs may be terminated before they are concluded, meaning that final reports cannot be written and months (if not years) of work could be lost.

In the face of these challenges, both public and private funders need to give organizations full flexibility to act with as much agility as possible. Further, they need to do so with a sense of responsibility to fieldworkers and principal investigators alike so that those organizations will be able to stand up new projects in the future. While many private funders, such as the Ford Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and others large and small, have made admirably comprehensive accommodations for grantees hit hard by coronavirus-related disruptions, the same cannot be said of public agencies.

For grantees working in low-income countries, a funder maintaining restrictions on funding creates a perfect storm of conditions that may threaten all operations. For example, as the coronavirus hits and workers are idled, labor laws often don’t allow for the temporary furloughing of workers in tough times. When a project is then suspended, having funding tied to that project has major consequences. For instance, with work discontinued, an organization cannot collect the grants previously awarded to them. Importantly, the idle workers are prevented from focusing on the urgent (in this case coronavirus-related) work that needs to be done, and the organization itself may be in financial turmoil threatening their future.

Funding restrictions also impair organizations’ ability to do right by their employees. For example, paying for additional leave time for working parents to care for children as schools close is a no-brainer, but is impossible under a restricted grant or contract without a line item in the budget.

With projects suspended, now think about what these research teams could do to answer urgent questions. If not constrained by overly restrictive funding policies, some of the existing research infrastructure could serve the coronavirus response in powerful ways, particularly in regions where information gaps are likely to impair the effectiveness of a national response.

Research can be reoriented to answer important questions about, for instance, the natural history of the virus, its population-based impacts, the ways in which human behavior exacerbates or mitigates its spread, the impacts of public health and economic policy measures, and much more. For example, when Ebola spread in Sierra Leone several years ago, researchers used a phone survey network originally developed to monitor food prices for a road infrastructure program to instead call respondents back to monitor food prices and availability in quarantined regions. This helped the government get food to where it was needed.

Today, with nearly half of children out of school globally because of the virus, an education expert assigned to evaluate a classroom intervention could be testing the best way to educate kids at home by radio, or interactive technology if their grants allowed it. Or an enumerator with already strong relationships with an existing sample could follow up with that same sample via phone (because they often have that data!) to ask questions about risk perceptions or health behaviors that might inform handwashing campaigns or information rollout.

Research teams can only pivot quickly like that if both private and public funders dramatically loosen restrictions on current funding and open up new opportunities for crucial knowledge-building.

So how can funders help? The Council on Foundations’ COVID-19 Commitment Pledge is a great start, but, in my view, these are the most urgent steps funders should be taking right now:

  • Loosen or eliminate restrictions on any existing funding. This crisis is changing daily, sometimes hourly. If you trusted the organization enough to give them a grant, trust them now to respond quickly.
  • Communicate with funded organizations. Reach out to research organizations you fund and ask how you can help, including things as simple as making connections between organizations or other partners (such as experts, local officials, or professional colleagues) who might be able to work together.
  • Communicate with the public. One of the reasons it is challenging for public funders like bilateral aid agencies to relax funding constraints is a concern about recriminations from the media and taxpayers around perceived lack of accountability. This risk can be mitigated by proactive communication about the value of the research — past, present, and future — for an informed pandemic response. There is now heightened awareness about the importance of expertise and how making investments in relevant research visible can bolster, rather than undermine, public support for this type of funding.
  • If you have the capacity, make additional funding available — and optimized for speed. If you have a fund for experimental ideas, pilot funding, or a rainy-day fund, now is the time to use it. This is the rainy day.

My point here is not the banal and well-rehearsed “more research is needed.” Rather, my point is that the world needs to make the most of valuable past investments in the capacity to collect and analyze data about issues of paramount importance to not just the policy community, but to every man, woman, and child in the world. We cannot let restrictive funding policies by bilateral agencies or private foundations get in the way of that goal.

Ruth Levine is a policy fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and formerly director of the Global Development and Population Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthLevine5.

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