Helping you know – and show – the ROI of the research you fund

When funding depends on it, how do you show the impact of your org’s research? This team tackled that challenge through analytics and collaboration

By Ian Evans - May 11, 2021 - Updated May 17, 2021
Science-Metrix FIA report image
Together with evaluation firm Science-Metrix, which Elsevier acquired in 2018, the Fund for International Agricultural Research (FIA) at the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) assessed the scientific impact, collaboration and openness of its research funding portfolio using bibliometric indicators. You can download the report in this story.

Raphael Nawrotzki, PhDLike many who work in research funding, Dr Raphael Nawrotzki needs to know — and show — that the research his organization funds makes a difference. It’s not simply a question of justifying one’s own decisions. Being able to demonstrate the impact of research leads to more investment, more research and better outcomes for people. As Raphael explained:

For us, as an organization that receives public funding, it is important to demonstrate impact to justify the spending of taxpayer money on agricultural research. We want to be as transparent as possible where we invest money and what benefits result from these investments.

As many researchers and research funders know, tracking the impact of research is no easy task. Raphael is an advisor for the Fund International Agricultural Research (FIA) at the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), based in Germany. The work they fund on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is vitally important. Almost 690 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, according to a 2020 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and these numbers are expected to rise as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Through FIA alone, Germany invested €260 million in agricultural research centers of the Global Research Partnership for a Food Secure Future (CGIAR) over the past two decades.

However, agricultural research is also the kind of field where the impacts of research can take years to make themselves known. So how does an organization like FIA show the value of the research it supports?

The answer lies, in part, within the published research itself. Together with the evaluation firm Science-Metrix, which Elsevier acquired in 2018, FIA set about assessing the scientific impact, collaboration and openness of its research funding portfolio using bibliometric indicators.

Dowload the report

David Campbell, Chief Scientist at Science-Metrix, elaborated on how the report took shape:

As well as looking for the standard kind of analysis — basically scientific impact or citation impact within the research community – Raphael and his colleagues at FIA were interested in learning more about the thematic areas they’re active in, as well as some productivity analysis.

David CampbellIn other words, they wanted to demonstrate the number of citations they received per euro invested. David continued:

Typically, it’s very difficult to do this kind of analysis well because of the difficulty in identifying every  publication funded by a given source, and you also need to ensure that you're able to track all inputs that went into the research. Understanding every research output that happened because of the money you invested is no easy task.

FIA themselves took a mixed-methods approach, combining qualitative research with desk research, literature review, surveys, and interviews within the organization. Science-Metrix provided the bibliometrics information, and critically, the whole process was conducted as a close partnership. Raphael explained why that approach was so crucial:

The impact of agricultural research has many dimensions beyond a mere count of publications. The expertise of specialized companies such as Science-Metrix is invaluable in assessing the scientific impact in its various bibliometric dimensions, but this is complemented by a broader perspective through socio-political impact studies. A collaborative approach can enhance the breadth of research … for greater reach in policy spheres.

The study itself demonstrated the strong scientific impacts of FIA-funded agricultural research, showing that these publications are, on average, close to 60% more cited than the average world publications in agricultural development, and they have a scientific impact (across 5 citation-based indicators) that is above the collective performance of the 15 most publishing institutions worldwide in agricultural research for development. Raphael explained:

When investing in agricultural research, we seek positive impacts in terms of development outcomes — for example, reduction in poverty and improved food security — but also in terms of an increase in the global knowledge base regarding innovations that will improve the livelihoods of marginalized populations. This report helped us assess the scientific quality, impact and reach of our funded research.

Being able to show the value of this research is especially important; several high-income countries have reduced their financial support in this area. David explained that this is often due to having multiple, conflicting research priorities and the fact that it’s been difficult in the past to demonstrate that agricultural research offers a return on investment:

What FIA’s assessment shows is that investing in agricultural research is worth it, both in terms of science quality an in returns in development outcomes linked to the SDGs.

The report shows that these investments have a strong positive influence on the livelihoods of marginalized populations in developing countries and beyond, helping establish more resilient production chains and more efficient production systems.

“In that sense,” David said, “being able to demonstrate that impact can help organizations such as FIA demonstrate to decision-makers that it’s worth increasing investment in public, national and international agricultural research.”


Ian Evans
Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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