‘We are all knowledge workers’

21 July 2014

Increased cooperation between scientists and development practitioners is benefiting both parties. In the latest issue of Vice Versa, Wiebe Bijker, chairman of the board at WOTRO Science for Global Development, argues that ‘it would be fruitful if development practitioners were to reflect more on their knowledge and share it by publishing, for example. It basically comes down to taking yourself seriously.’

This article is a co-production of WOTRO and Vice Versa. It was originally published in Dutch in Vice Versa in April 2014. By Joris Tielens.

It is not easy to pigeonhole Wiebe Bijker. When talking to hydraulic engineers, he tells them he was educated at Delft University of Technology. Among scientists, he is known as a professor of social sciences at Maastricht University who for decades has been doing research on the role of technology in society. When in the company of development practitioners, he appears to know everything there is to know about innovations in handloom weaving, to cite but one example. ‘I’m still trying to stay one step ahead of everyone so they can’t catch me,’ Bijker says, laughing. In the last ten years, he has focused particularly on studying the role of technology in the non-western world, and in 2013 he also became chairman of the board at WOTRO Science for Global Development, a division of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) that finances research on development cooperation.

Bijker’s versatility suits the kind of research that is needed, in his opinion, to make science useful for development cooperation – research that pools scientists from different disciplines, such as sociologists, lawyers and engineers, to work on the same problem. But Bijker believes that researchers should work more with people in the field and not just fellow scientists. In development cooperation, this primarily means supporters of NGOs and development practitioners, but the business sector is also playing an increasingly important role in research – if only because the business sector is determining the research agenda of the Dutch ‘top sector policy’.

Working with NGOs gives scientists the opportunity to gain more insight into what the main concerns are in the field so they can come up with solutions for these issues, says Bijker. Working with scientists gives development organisations a chance to reflect more explicitly on their own work. ‘Many development practitioners are extremely knowledgeable, not only about their interventions but also about innovation. But a great deal of knowledge remains implicit. It would be fruitful if they were to reflect more on their knowledge, and share it by publishing, for example. It basically comes down to taking yourself seriously.’

Social relevance

It is a given these days that scientists have to help solve concrete social problems, according to Bijker. ‘The ivory tower doesn’t exist anymore,’ he says. ‘A hundred years ago, the production of knowledge took place primarily at universities, according to an internal agenda of the sciences. From the 1960s onward, knowledge was also developed in industry, at NGOs and at institutes not affiliated with universities, with agendas that did not emerge from the sciences.’ An example is the action research of the 1980s, when scientists committed themselves to an ideal and worked on a problem with local inhabitants, for example. ‘But in major projects, such as the Human Genome Project and synthetic biology and nanotechnology, the agenda is also closely linked to social issues.’

These days, the social significance of other research financed by NWO has become increasingly important as well. ‘Until recently,’ says Bijker, ‘you could answer questions about social relevance or knowledge valorisation on your application for research funding, but if you didn’t answer these questions that was fine too. Slowly but surely, almost all NWO research applications ask you to explain how you expect to use the knowledge. It’s no longer sufficient to publish good books or articles.’ WOTRO, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014, played a leading role within NWO in that respect, says Bijker, as did research conducted by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw) and the Dutch Technology Foundation STW.

Financers can demand that researchers have their feet firmly planted in society. At the same time, scientists are judged on the number of academic publications they produce, and they can even lose their jobs if they fail to meet the quota. Articles published in renowned scientific magazines, such as Science or Nature, outweigh practical publications about concrete issues. ‘That’s true,’ Bijker agrees. ‘Some scientists who publish a great deal for a large audience, and therefore have a major social impact, have the feeling that they are underappreciated in the academic world. But universities can implement their own policies in that respect. There are also faculties that do attach value to works that aren’t published in the usual scientific journals. I have a feeling that we’re reaching a turning point here too.’

Mutual cooperation among various scientists and cooperation between scientists and NGOs is not something you can take for granted, in Bijker’s opinion. ‘It’s hard work. If you want to explain hydraulic engineering to a lawyer, then you have to be willing to work to achieve that goal. But that’s not to say that it can’t be done.’ According to Bijker, setting up joint projects requires taking sufficient time to ensure everyone is on the same wavelength. ‘It’s not a given that everyone is focusing on the same issue.’ Scientists and practitioners from various backgrounds see different problems, speak a different language and come up with different solutions. ‘Often, there’s a difference in culture, and it takes time to discover a common vocabulary. The search for a common language and style of working should be a recurring task in every project.’



One example is a project funded by WOTRO called Conflict and Cooperation over Natural Resources in Developing Countries (CoCooN), which is examining the distribution of natural resources and the conflicts that cause these patterns of distribution. Although cooperation between scientists and NGOs has been taking place for a while now at WOTRO, CoCooN is the first WOTRO project to fund non-scientists, such as researchers from NGOs.

Teyo van der Schoot is a senior advisor in human rights at Hivos and is involved in one of the CoCooN projects. The project deals with oil and gas extraction and mining in Bolivia and Ecuador, which have been nationalised by these countries’ left-wing governments. A far larger portion of the income from the industry therefore remains in these countries, whereas in the past, 99% of the profit used to vanish abroad. The downside of the story is that the inhabitants living in the areas where extraction is taking place – usually indigenous peoples – still face environmental pollution and social upheaval in their communities. ‘Our research in this project,’ says Van der Schoot, ‘is being conducted with scientists from the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) and staff from local NGOs. We are investigating the impact of oil pollution on local inhabitants, the conflicts that arise as a result and potential alternatives.’ The project aims to build the capacity of local universities and NGOs by conducting research together and making the results accessible to local activists, communities and government agencies. ‘The quality and status of information is becoming increasingly important. Businesses, for example, often claim that there has been no pollution or social damage, and increasingly they are enlisting anthropologists to verify their claims. These statements stand in stark contrast to the complaints lodged by local groups about water pollution, prostitution and health issues. So whose report carries more weight?’

Action researcher

Van der Schoot describes himself as an action researcher. ‘In the 1980s, there were romantic notions about action research. During each stage of the research, you would work together with the people you were doing it for. That was probably overly idealistic. Interests are not always clear locally – in fact they often diverge. And it’s important to maintain a certain distance.’ But with these lessons in the back of his mind, Van der Schoot still likes to call himself an action researcher. ‘The idea is gaining a bit of momentum again. Hivos is interested in the space that local groups are given to voice their perspective. We want research to help improve the lives of people there. We use a more activist approach than researchers from ISS or USFQ in that respect. In their PhDs, they apply their Marxist or postmodern analyses to the problem, but people do not really have much use for excessively theoretical studies. They only become interested once you are able to translate your knowledge into concrete policy recommendations or use it to feed the social debate at the local level.’

Local NGOs, on the other hand, are often too involved to view the problem with an open, inquisitive attitude, says Van der Schoot. ‘If something comes from the US, the imperialistic neighbour from the north, such as the extraction of shale gas, then many local NGOs will have a pre-conceived, negative view of it. Local organisations in Bolivia quite frequently conduct research to prove their point. The idea behind CoCooN is to build local capacity by conducting research together with an open mind. We want local organisations to also be in the position to do research themselves. But then it has to be good research.’

The theoretical question of how the Latin American ‘left turn’ and the nationalisation of the oil and mining industries would impact social cooperation and conflict played a major part in the design of the research, explains Van der Schoot. ‘But we discussed the location, nature and use of the research in detail with local actors, especially environmental activists and indigenous groups. These are ongoing discussions and we are trying our best to take into account the needs for training sessions and capacity development.’ Van der Schoot acknowledges that there is nevertheless tension between local NGOs and the ISS scientists who fly in from abroad. ‘We want the Hivos knowledge programme to bring these two worlds closer together.’ Indeed, Hivos is using the knowledge programme, which was launched last decade, to try to connect Hivos researchers with practitioners so that knowledge development can be used more effectively to promote social innovation and change.

Ivan Komproe is familiar with the differences between the academic world and NGOs. He embodies both these roles, because in addition to being a researcher at HealthNet TPO, Komproe is also professor of psychology and collective trauma one day a week at Utrecht University. ‘At HealthNet TPO, we have been conducting scientific research on interventions and care systems for health-related problems in fragile states for almost 20 years, and we publish works on the subject in academic journals. Still, my colleagues in Utrecht don’t always see it as genuine science but more as applied science. My colleagues in development cooperation, meanwhile, wonder whether all that in-depth research is really necessary. The more formal and reproducible the research, and therefore the more scientific it is, the more laborious it is perceived to be. Those who are less academically inclined are quick to say: I could have told you that myself. Academic researchers are a different breed of people.’

Cultural differences also lead to new approaches, according to Komproe. ‘HealthNet TPO bases its research on problems that the organisation has witnessed in the field. That is what determines the focus of the research. Things usually work differently with academic research. The focus of the research there is usually determined by previous research or by theory.’

As a result, the context often receives too little attention in scientific research, according to Komproe. ‘Problems are approached abstractly and ask whether the hypothesis is correct. But if it has been scientifically shown that a certain solution works, then that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is being used in practice – for example, because people don’t recognise the problem for which the solution has been developed, or because they are not familiar with the solution or don’t accept it or can’t afford it. These are all matters that receive insufficient attention in scientific research.’ Much of HealthNet TPO’s research focuses on developing solutions to prevent these situations from occurring, says Komproe. ‘In practice, that’s where the greatest health gains are attained. What’s more, we have to be able to show our donors that our interventions are having an effect.’

Komproe stresses the importance of research and science for development cooperation. Research plays a key role at HealthNet TPO, though Komproe adds that his colleagues in the organisation sometimes have to be persuaded of its importance. Komproe has noticed that research at other NGOs is often done by a few individuals, for example for a PhD alongside work. ‘Often it concerns scientists working on a project who are looking for opportunities to do research at an NGO, and not the other way around. So in that case, the research focus comes from science, not from the field.’


Wiebe Bijker is not completely comfortable with the distinction between scientists and practitioners. ‘We are all knowledge workers. Of course, development practitioners are in it for different reasons than scientists. But’s there’s a reason why they started to work together. So they both have to invest in it. Scientists have to realise that by working very closely with development practitioners, they can gain better insight into the problem that they want to study. And development can use scientists as a kind of mirror, to look at a practical problem in a slightly different way.’

Bijker does not think that development practitioners need to transform themselves into scientists by extensively measuring, monitoring and evaluating. ‘As a scientist, I particularly appreciate development practitioners when I see that they are good development practitioners. That doesn’t have to be quantified. I much prefer to hear convincing stories that make it clear that they understand what the problem is.’ Bijker believes that the willingness to learn and make an effort to learn is important. ‘Just as scientists have to make an effort to translate abstract knowledge into something that’s useful in practice, development practitioners have to make an effort to reflect on their practical knowledge and present it to scientists.’ Anyone who has worked for three years on a successful water project in Bangladesh, for example, can further increase the effectiveness of his work by spending three months of his time to better understand what is behind that success and then publish a piece about it, so that people elsewhere can learn from it as well, says Bijker.

Is cooperation possible between different types of scientists, development practitioners and entrepreneurs, each of whom comes from a different world? Does that not require a jack of all trades who has to be brilliant to boot? ‘Brilliant isn’t necessary,’ says Bijker. ‘That would only be the case if one individual were expected to do everything himself: to successfully complete a development project, and then also write an article for a peer-reviewed scientific journal. You need a group, but the group needs to consist of people who listen to each other well and can become enthusiastic about what the others are doing. It requires people who can build bridges and use them to walk to the other side. The nice thing is that I think many development practitioners have precisely that skill. They are used to crossing bridges between different cultures, for example between the Netherlands and Bangladesh, or between indigenous knowledge and western knowledge. They have the skills to link different vocabularies together, and that’s what it’s all about.’