This interview was conducted by Carolyn Rodehau, Senior Communications and Engagement Lead for USAID’s Research Technical Assistance Center.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Ticora V. Jones, the Director of the Center for Development and Research within the Global Development Lab at USAID to discuss power of partnerships to advance development solutions. Excerpts below offer Dr. Jones’ insights on her vision for the Research Technical Assistance Center, the role of partnerships with academic researchers, and the value of diversity in perspective and experience.
Carolyn: I heard you guys are celebrating a big birthday around here?
Ticora: We’re 5! USAID launched the Global Development Lab in April 2014 to advance science, technology, innovation, and partnerships to solve development challenges. Five years later, the Lab is still doing that work with an emphasis on including more diverse actors, researchers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.
The Lab plays a critical role in both incubating new innovations as well as introducing those innovations to the broader development community and in some cases supporting how these innovations are implemented and scaled.Dr. Ticora V. Jones
C: For folks who aren’t familiar with the Global Development Lab, can you start with a brief overview of the Lab’s role within the Agency?
T: The Global Development Lab was created to transform the development landscape by advancing new innovations—whether technologies or approaches. The Lab plays a critical role in both incubating new innovations as well as introducing those innovations to the broader development community and in some cases supporting how these innovations are implemented and scaled. Often such innovations are happening across sectors, or outside of the development field all together but have promise for accelerating global development. We harness broader strategic thinking around how to apply an innovation in a way that creates a holistic approach regardless of sector or region.
Our current work started 10 years ago under the Office of Science and Technology and the Innovation Development Alliances Office, which were later joined together create the Lab. Today, the Lab is comprised of four divisions: Center for Digital Development, Center for Transformational Partnership, Center for Development and Innovation, and Center for Development Research.
While each of the Centers takes a slightly different approach to the way they engage inside the Agency and with outside partners, all of the Centers are forward-looking, solutions-focused, and embrace creativity and agility. As a hub for innovation, we really push the boundaries beyond the traditional development models in order to fundamentally change the way we do development.
For us, research is a tool to advance development. Research is not an end unto itself...There is a real need to translate evidence and learning in way that meets the needs of both researchers, development decisionmakers, and practitioners.Dr. Ticora V. Jones
C: The primary aim of the Research Technical Assistance Center (RTAC) is to promote new partnerships by connecting USAID Missions, Bureaus, and Independent Offices to a diverse network of academic researchers based around the world. Tell me a little bit more about the Agency’s vision for this project. From what I hear, it was your brain child.
T: It was a collaborative effort with an amazing team! There was growing desire from within the Agency to be more targeted in how we engage around research questions.
For us, research is a tool to advance development. Research is not an end unto itself. It’s not necessary that every research question we ask is something that needs to be implementable immediately, but it does need to contribute to the conversation, advance our thinking, and move beyond publication. Because while peer-reviewed publications are a way to ensure that you are codifying research results, they are not sufficient for making advancements in global development.
RTAC was created to support the Agency to investigate and produce research quickly. The consultancy model was designed to provide a mechanism for USAID’s Missions, Bureaus, and Independent Offices to answer the research questions that they are grappling with and don’t necessarily have the time to investigate as fulsomely as a researcher might. RTAC provides a dynamic platform that allows the Agency to interface with the academic community to find the kinds of academics who are interested in and sensitive to development questions.
We also wanted to be more intentional about supporting the use of existing evidence generated under investments made by the Center for Development Research, through the Higher Education Research Solutions Network (HESN) and the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement and Research (PEER). We see RTAC as a mechanism that can support researchers strategically communicate and plan for the use of their research in a way that will help us achieve greater impact.
C: As a communications professional who works with researchers, I very much appreciate that approach.
T: The ability to bridge the research-to-practice gap is critical. There is a real need to translate evidence and learning in way that meets the needs of both researchers, development decisionmakers, and practitioners.
Left to their own respective devices, a development professional will say “uhh that research jargon is not something I can interpret and figure out how to use. I don’t have time for this. I need something short and practical.” And left to their own devices, the research professional will go “uhh, you want me to translate it into something that a third grader can understand? But that diminishes the value of the work that I’ve done.”
We need researcher translators, communicators, and others who are able to build and maintain that bridge between those two communities, for mutual benefit. Without intentional trust and partnership, we will continually run up against barriers to research moving from generation to application and adaption.
C: One of the Lab’s five core objectives is on partnerships with a particular focus on partnering with academic institutions and their researchers. I would be interested to know more about how you envision these types of partnerships contributing to accelerating development outcomes?
Partnering with the academic community is vital to moving from idea to implementation. Higher education institutions sit at the nexus of what is possible and who can help execute that possibility.Dr. Ticora V. Jones
T: Partnering with the academic community is vital to moving from idea to implementation. Higher education institutions sit at the nexus of what is possible and who can help execute that possibility. That process of identifying the places where research can be a valuable tool and executing that research in partnership with higher education institutions has been important to how the Lab functions and how we are transformative.
We recognize that we are living in a much more connected world. Both virtually with respect to advances in digital communications, but also physically. Now, someone with a highly contagious disease can get on a plane, and, just like that, the virus jumps from one country to another part of the world.
Given this new landscape, we are looking for ways that we can leverage cutting-edge technologies and approaches to deploy more responsive solutions. And a lot of these advances have had their initial start with academic institutions, and then as they picked up traction, they started being deployed in developing country contexts. For example, we are exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence (ML/AI) technologies can reshape health care, agriculture, and democracy in the developing world.
C: You yourself came to the Agency as an American Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology Policy AASS fellow. Tell me some of the benefits that academics can gain from partnering with development agencies.
Participating in something like RTAC provides academic researchers the opportunity to elevate the visibility of their work in diverse development platforms that go beyond the traditional academic realm.Dr. Ticora V. Jones
T: Yes, I did. Development really opens the door for academic researchers to apply their problem-solving skills in new ways, enabling them to unpack uncomplex challenges, generate new solutions, and then shape the way those innovations are field-tested, deployed, and potentially scaled or adapted. I think it is this intersection of problem solving and innovation field testing that can provide a rich professional experience.
You know it really is a matter of how they [academic researchers] want to think about their body of work over the long term. Do you only want to be able to say that I’ve published “X number” of papers in peer-reviewed journals and I have “X number” of citations or patents? Or do you have a desire to have a greater impact and societal benefit?
Participating in something like RTAC provides academic researchers the opportunity to elevate the visibility of their work in diverse development platforms that go beyond the traditional academic realm.
As academic institutions move beyond purely publications, patents, and grants as a way to measure the perceived value of a faculty member’s work, I’d like to think that through RTAC we have created an avenue that can promote the social impact potential of the research being produced on those campuses.
Through mechanisms like RTAC, my hope is that higher academic research institutions around the world will continue to advance their understanding and engagement of what it means to be a globally engaged campus.
C: Diversity and inclusion are cornerstones of the Lab and likewise, important for the way that RTAC was designed. Tell me more about the value in bringing in more diverse partners.
T: The Lab embraces diversity of perspective and experience, particularly around the democratization of science and technology. We want to ensure we are tapping into the huge talent pool in the countries where the Agency works. Bringing in new and diverse perspectives paired with local expertise is essential from a for solving problems, as well as furthering our Agency objective of advancing the journey to self-reliance.
The Lab is committed to moving beyond a partnership model that only looks to academic institutions with the most perceived prestige or academic experts with the longest tenure. That’s a commitment we demonstrated through our legacy programs HESN and PEER, and one we continue to advance through RTAC because supporting developing country researchers, young researchers, and female researchers enriches the discussion and is essential to creating a broader vision of that “possible.”
C: Let’s wrap up our discussion with one last question. RTAC is currently in its first year. If we were to fast forward four years, what are three things that you would like to see the project achieve?
T: First and foremost, I’d love to see the Agency engaging in the consultancy model that we’ve created through RTAC and know that they see it as valuable. I’m excited to see how RTAC can generate actionable and useful research translation products and in turn create a demand for those kinds of services.
Inside of the Center for Development Research, what I’d like to see is how we are able to continue to push at the intersections of development, technology, and innovation. For example, under RTAC, we’re working with our colleagues in the Center for Digital Development to organize a convening on the development implications of AI/ML. My hope is that we will continue to use RTAC as a mechanism to help us surface that forward-looking, big-picture thinking around those types of advances and to understand their development relevance.
And finally, I’d like to see that the academic institutions we’ve been able to partner with over time continue to evolve in how they value their engagement with a development organization – particularly how institution shifts their approach to global engagements and outreach through changing models to tenure and promotion that incorporate societal impact.