This blog was originally published on Research to Action.

Growing up in rural Botswana I was always acutely aware of social disparity. The city and towns people seemed to have much easier access to resources and services than us rural dwellers. Social equity has since become my life’s pursuit.

Today, as an emerging researcher, publishing academic papers will never be the only measure of success for me. I want my research to contribute to tangible and positive impact in people’s lives. For that reason, I’m drawn to implementation science – converting research evidence into solutions, policies and programs that have a positive social impact.

Of course, I am aware of the challenges of research for development. It is complex, nonlinear, and ever evolving. I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle because it involves so many different movable parts and sometimes, we must try different pieces until we find the one that fits. In that regard, implementation science is about testing or trialing solutions, seeing what works and then scaling it.

But have you ever thought about the science behind the scaling of successful innovations, programs or policies? What informs the expansion process?

I hadn’t thought about this until last summer when I crossed paths with the concept of ‘Scaling Science’ at an International Development Research Centre (IDRC) workshop last summer. The concept is underpinned by insightful findings from a study of over 200 Southern research and innovation projects. What I learned that day had a profound impact on me and my work.

“It’s easy to fall into the ‘bigger is better’ mentality”, the workshop facilitators explained. Often we scale up interventions without paying attention to whether we’re positively scaling the impact of that intervention too. Is the impact sustainable at a larger scale? Is it equitable, or are different groups being affected differently?  

When I heard this, I immediately thought of the popular backyard gardening initiatives aimed at improving food security, alleviating micronutrient deficiencies and boosting household economic growth around the world. The initial successes and the promise of triple impact saw backyard gardens scale quickly. I remember that every community across Botswana boasts an abundance of backyard gardens. But most are dry, dusty patches – especially in rural areas where water can be a luxury. Clearly the scaling aspect had not been fully thought through.

Scaling Science encourages a more critical, systematic, and scientific approach to scaling. IDRC’s study of southern research and innovation has identified four guiding principles to support and guide this work.

Firstly, the decision to scale must be justified. The argument here is that scaling should be a shared choice predicated on a balance of evidence and values – of both the innovator and the people who will be impacted by the program or policy.

Secondly, it’s not all about maximum scale, it’s about optimal scale. Much like the backyard gardens, when something scales too quickly or without a critical and systematic approach, it can end up being wasted resource. Or worse, can end up negatively impacting people. Robert McLean and John Gargani posit that scaling produces a collection of impacts, therefore, determining the optimal scale requires balancing between the size, depth, sustainability and equity of impact that you have.

Thirdly, sustainable development can’t be achieved without collaboration and partnership. The same is true for scaling development impact. Scaling Science emphasizes the need for coordination between a diverse and evolving set of stakeholders in the ecosystem.

Fourthly – and finally – dynamic evaluation. This views scaling as an intervention in itself that can be evaluated. Dynamic evaluation is about continuous learning before, during and after scaling.  

Post-pandemic there is an even greater impetus to optimize and scale: COVID-19 has disrupted and hindered progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, and recovery strategies will need to be more cost efficient and effective to recover from the setbacks.  

Could Scaling Science be the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle to achieve our sustainable development goals? Can it help us to reset the development agenda and achieve sustainable and equitable development at optimal scale?  

I encourage my fellow young researchers to explore the scaling science concepts – a good starting point is the book Scaling Impact: Innovation for the Public Good and The Scaling Playbook: A Practical Guide for Researchers.

As I think about how to apply this to my own research, I realise the importance of funders of research investing in and supporting this approach. And a new collective call to action to funders from a group of southern researchers and innovators sets out some important starting points to do this.

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