Quick- What do the following cities have in common: London, Arusha, Dublin, Cape Town, Marseille, Accra, Oslo, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa?
A) They were candidates to host the 2020 Summer Olympics
B) They are each home to three or more UNESCO World Heritage sites
C) They have hosted the “PopPov” annual research conference
The answer is C, or at least it will be soon. The past tense, hosted, will apply to Addis Ababa only after June 26, 2015. What makes the upcoming PopPov conference special is the topic of this post.
The primary goal of PopPov was to help re-energize the field of economic demography, which had become less salient within development policy circles over the preceding fifteen years or so, but still had much to offer on some of the most vexing public policy challenges. Contributing to the scientific body of knowledge and policy impact were important goals too, but secondary to this focus on people. The theory of change went something like: 1) attract top talent and support them to do cutting-edge research, which would result in 2) compelling research results, which then could 3) help policymakers make more informed policy decisions. The choice to prioritize field-building guided two key decisions about PopPov right from the beginning. The first was to support research through open calls, rather than being directive about the exact research questions to pursue. The second was to organize an annual research conference to allow for scholarly exchange around ongoing work.
Those annual conferences have truly been a smart investment. Sure, there are more than a few PowerPoint slides with complicated Greek letter-filled equations and tiny tables of regression results; this is a research conference, after all. But somewhere between Paul Schultz tearing apart another paper for methodological flaws, David Canning scooping up another young researcher to join him at Harvard, and Nkang Moses Nkang and Chalachew Desta Getahun, just two among the fifty or so dissertation fellows deepening their friendship over another meal, we have witnessed a field being reinvigorated. And that has been pretty magical.
The conferences have been a great opportunity to deepen collaborative relationships with the other funders and partnering organizations too. Over the years, the Center for Global Development and the Population Reference Bureau have served as the Secretariat for PopPov, taking on the responsibility for organizing the annual conferences, keeping up to date on the research outputs, identifying dissemination opportunities, and many, many other tasks. Four European research councils—NWO/WOTRO, Research Council of Norway, Economic and Social Research Council, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement/Agence Française de Développement—and the World Bank have co-sponsored research, and they have certainly helped to make PopPov a more global, vibrant network. These partnerships have helped to pave the way for other multi-donor research efforts, such as Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW), by setting an important precedent. The Institute of International Education managed the PopPov dissertation fellowship program, and has supported over fifty fellows to date. The evaluation pointed to the engagement of these young scholars in the population and development field as one of the greatest successes of PopPov. We couldn’t agree more.
After a decade of supporting PopPov, the Foundation is planning to pursue a focused research agenda more closely aligned with the strategic objectives of our Global Development and Population Program. We’re not exiting PopPov so much as evolving our approach in response to the lessons we have learned. Guided by the findings and recommendations from the evaluation, we intend to maintain the field we have helped to strengthen and to ensure important research results contribute to policy discussions, such as those around the formulation of the post-2015 development agenda setting process.
The upcoming PopPov conference will be the last research-focused meeting, and is being billed as the capstone event. At the risk of being a little self-congratulatory, we hope the conference provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on and celebrate the achievements of PopPov.
As a program officer responsible for shepherding this work since I joined the Foundation in 2009, I’ve been doing some reflection too. Looking back on the past six years, I can sum up my emotions in three words: awe, frustration, and gratitude.
I still remember walking into my first PopPov conference in Cape Town in January 2010 feeling a little star-struck just by being in the same room with so many researchers whose papers I read in graduate school. Even now, I find it remarkable to see the many luminaries and would-be luminaries all deeply engaged in work on population and development issues under the PopPov tent.
While the field-building focus did draw many top names and new researchers, there’s no denying that the choice to support research through open calls has made it challenging to influence policy decisions. Policies are rarely swayed by a single piece of research, and that’s probably a good thing, since science works best when findings from multiple studies point toward the same conclusions. A body of work on a narrow topic, or a number of research projects focused on a particular country, are more likely to get the attention of policymakers. The “let a thousand flowers bloom strategy” PopPov pursued resulted in a beautiful field, but it has been difficult to create coherent “bouquets” from these flowers. It’s been frustrating at times to not be able to draw a clear and quick line from research to policy impact. But I’ve since come to see that it can take many years for research to influence policy, and that impact comes in many forms (including in the form of spurring interest in additional research).
Overall, I feel grateful to have had a part in supporting and shaping the PopPov network. I look forward to seeing what will come from these thousand flowers—we’ve already seen the seeds of PopPov-funded research in the growing interest among African policymakers on the demographic dividend, for example. Many of the dissertation fellows—the seedlings—have gone on to pursue careers at top universities, think tanks, and the World Bank. There are numerous examples of cross-pollination too, as network members develop research collaborations that begin over coffee break chats at the PopPov conferences.
Now that I’ve stretched the flowers metaphor way too far, I’ll close with sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed to PopPov over the years, from our fellow funders and partners to all the researchers. (And by the way, in case you were wondering: Addis Ababa has never hosted the Olympics, but at the last summer Olympics in 2012, Ethiopia won three gold medals (all by women!); and there are nine UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ethiopia.)