In choosing which kind of research to support there are three major issues which you must think about: applicability, tractability and type of research.
1) Applicable research can be used in real life situations.
A huge amount of research is done on issues that will never play a part in a person’s decisions. It can be on a very interesting topic but nonetheless have no practical relevance to issues in the field.
Often it is very hard for academics or researchers, even if well intentioned, to know what research would be the most useful for the organizations they are intending to help (e.g. healthcare providers).
To counteract this when we did our own research, our first step was to contact practitioners in the field and talk to them about the issues they were facing and what research they would find most valuable. This led us to focus on important issues that would affect multiple charities and large sums of money. It also increased the chances that our research would really make a difference.
2) Tractability is whether it is possible to make progress on a topic
A lot of research tends to be on problems that are very hard to solve. For example, it might be great to figure out how to solve all human suffering, but this issue is very, very difficult (and arguably impossible) to solve at such a broad level. A problem like this could be worked on for lifetimes with very little progress being made. This would be an intractable issue.
A more tractable issue might be whether bed nets save lives, or whether deworming increases school attendance. You can run a study to find these answers.
3) Research should be based on real life observations, not arm chair musings
As H. G. Wells so accurately put it, “Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough---as most wrong theories are!”
Armchair reasoning, based on theory, thought experiments and internal consistency, has a very poor track record if it is not coupled with empirical research. Before the scientific revolution, nearly all realms of research were mostly full of theoretical research, including physics, chemistry, and biology. It was during this time that going to the doctor was worse for your health than staying at home.
Empirical research takes these theories and tests them through experimentation. Except in the realms it has not yet been able to expand into, such as philosophy and math, it has dramatically improved our understanding of the world.
As charity science supporters, we want to apply this powerful method to doing good. We insist that any theory, no matter how plausible, be put to empirical tests by multiple, independent researchers.
Some good examples of nonprofits doing this are Innovations for Poverty Action, The Humane League Labs and Cochrane Reviews.
So next time you are thinking of delving into a research topic, ask yourself if the research is:
You also might be interested in our operations blog that details: our month to month organizational progress, the more technical ideas we have, and our board meeting minutes