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Research for Development (R4D) Conferences: What are they and why are they important?

R4D LogoLASER PULSE wants to see researchers working on development problems. For example, we want to figure out how to provide jobs for young people in places around the world where youth unemployment is high. We want to make sure these young people don’t feel that they have to resort to violence because they have no meaningful role in society. We want human beings to be able to survive and even thrive as well as we can in the face of natural and man-made upheavals. There are so many problems out there, and these problems are not just problems of one country, or one culture, or one clan. They are global problems.

We need the people who make laws and policy (government) to feel they have the support to solve these problems. We need people who work for positive change (NGO workers) to help others understand how they can behave differently to create that change. And we need people who make discoveries (researchers) to find how we can fix all of these overwhelming, complicated and complex issues. Perhaps we could use the people who drive the creation of value to help us find a way to pay for our proposed solutions. All of this takes all of us in our different roles, coordinating and collaborating to solve these problems. Researchers working with practitioner groups to inform research with on-the-ground realities. Governments steadily relying on evidence to inform policy. Practitioners creating change based on new and innovative research.

Figure 1: Dr. Joe Sinfield, Associate Professor at Purdue Civil Engineering, and Director of College of Engineering Innovation and Leadership Studies Program
Joe Sinfield

That’s why LASER has what we call Research for Development (R4D) conferences or workshops. We organize these meetings to bring those people together around very specific development challenges where USAID has a working relationship with these countries’ national governments. We use a method called Comprehensive Success Factors to spot where there are gaps in what should be happening, and to get ideas from researchers and NGO teams about ways we might fill those gaps. This is through the Request for Applications we hold a few months following the conferences. Right after the R4D conference, we start putting together a Request for Applications, based on those USAID-identified sectors and on the feedback about the gaps that we got from our pre-conference meetings and in-conference sessions to talk about those gaps. 

LASER held an R4D Workshop in Bogota, Colombia during the first week of October. We went deep with our expectations of engagement from our university, government, private sector, and NGO partners. We visited universities several months before holding the workshop so we could meet with researchers and explain what we are after with these events – what topics USAID Colombia gave us to focus on, and what we mean by ‘embedded research translation’: that the application part of it is already planned and is built into the design of the research project. 

Group from R4D ColombiaAfter this, we held lunchtime roundtables with NGO representatives to learn about their experiences working with researchers. We wanted to know what value they felt they got from those kinds of collaborations, and if there are problems that are really barriers to their collaboration, how we could help to resolve these. We learned that NGOs didn’t really see much of a range of ways that ‘research’ could help them with development issues. They had the idea that researchers could help with evaluations, assessments, and survey tools – those kinds of things, but that was about it. Researchers themselves didn’t have a much broader idea of how they could help. We wanted to change those perceptions. We invited the NGO representatives to think about development challenges they have, which they can’t seem to solve. We asked them to present those at the conference, where researchers would be listening to them, and to begin a discussion about how researchers might be able to help. 

At this point, we had one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments, because we realized, while trying to get these groups to talk about collaboration on solutions to ‘intractable’ problems, that NGO representatives have a certain idea about what ‘research’ means - a study that leads to a published paper. And this is not at all what LASER means by ‘research.’ 


Kampala, Uganda R4DFor LASER-PULSE, research means ‘the expertise of the researcher applied to a development problem.’ Researcher is a very broad label. It is a person – generally a faculty member, who works for a university or research institute, who has expertise in an academic discipline, and special skills required by that discipline. Applied to development examples, it could be an anthropologist who can study and document ancient agricultural practices so that these practices can be preserved, and that the people from that culture can have the agricultural skills to preserve them. It could be an agricultural economist, who can make recommendations about value chain systems that can improve the opportunities for young people to process and add value to local agricultural products – maybe understand how to use new technology to organize the system into hubs and distribution points, or for transfer of payments. Or maybe the researcher/expert is an industrial engineer who can map workflows to allow local clinics to enable mothers to do kangaroo mother care with their preterm babies, and thus reduce their mortality rate. 

There is so much expertise and so many skills across all of the disciplines of a higher education institution. The thought that we aren’t applying this expertise in development as a matter of practice is a thought of wasted value. LASER PULSE wants to help governments, donors, researchers, and NGO representatives see the opportunities to collaborate, and then work together to solve the ever-tougher global challenges that come our way. 

  1. Colombia
  2. Comprehensive Success Factors
  3. LASER-PULSE
  4. R4D
  5. usaid

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