Genuine North-South collaboration depends on a new reward system

Until we stop glorifying self-achievement, collaboration will remain transactional, say Maru Mormina, Romina Istratii and Alex Lewis

November 5, 2020
A senior white scientist and a junior black scientist
Source: iStock

When the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) was announced five years ago, it was envisioned as a
win-win arrangement that would align international aid with the national interest.

The aim was to harness domestic research capacity to solve intractable development issues through innovative, impact-driven research. The UK would meet its moral obligations towards the world’s poorest while at the same time supporting its home-grown research industry.

In practice, the GCRF placed money in the hands of UK research institutions. This ensured that UK science took the lead on the problems faced by low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), but as the £1.5 billion scheme comes to an end – at least in its current form – perhaps now is a good moment to reflect openly on whether the fund has made a difference, and if so, to whom. Has it helped increase knowledge production and strengthen research capacity in LMICs? Or has it merely consolidated the UK research base? Our experience as researchers and managers working in institutions with significant overseas research portfolios suggests the results have been mixed.

The GCRF has visibly encouraged more collaboration between northern and southern counterparts, more interdisciplinarity and a greater focus on how research impacts the lives of real people. At the same time, the Independent Commission on Aid Impact has rightly warned that the current model of international aid funding, especially the GCRF, fails to prioritise the research needs and capacities of LMICs over the interests and budgets of UK research institutions.

To the cynical, the GCRF (and the related Newton Fund) is merely a clever way to avoid breaking spending commitments on international aid while giving UK universities an income boost. GCRF spending rules make it possible for institutions to spend money on indirect costs, which may be compliant with the letter of aid spending but not with its spirit.

The scheme also emphasises the importance of collaboration and capacity building, but given the structural realities of international partnerships and the continuing colonial power dynamics between UK academics and their southern partners, the former invariably have the advantage. There are well-documented cases of northern partners exercising excessive influence over research agendas, budgets, IP terms and authorship arrangements, amplified by a general lack of meaningful involvement of international partners in project development and execution.

Global South scholars are often best placed to lead research projects in their respective contexts, so when they are provided with the funds and means, such projects can have real development impact. The success of long-running North-South collaborative programmes such as Young Lives and the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (both UK led) is to a great extent down to the expertise of local collaborators and the willingness of the UK partners to diffuse decision-making power.

As we look at the future of the GCRF, we believe there is a need to rebalance funding and improve selection criteria of proposals if the aim is to benefit LMICs. The distribution of grants should be less UK centred and more focused on the needs of these countries as determined by them.

In this regard, a step in the right direction is UK Research and Innovation’s aim to increase to 90 per cent the proportion of members of its International Development Peer Review College who come from LMICs. Funding should also be untied (as the independent commission recommended) from UK universities, whose involvement in projects should be justified on the basis of clear added value.

Pursuing “fair and equitable” collaborations may well mean letting the best researchers in LMICs lead and drive research agendas that truly benefit their communities. Impact-driven research that contributes to peace, stability and sustainable human and ecological well-being is, after all, in the UK’s national interest.

However, such a move may be resisted by UK academics and institutions reluctant to cede power and, potentially, funding that feeds into the statistics on research income and citations according to which they are measured against each other. Only by changing the way people are appraised and research is assessed will we create the right conditions for more collaborative approaches.

We are not suggesting the abolition of the GCRF; we value its opening of new possibilities. Nor do we advocate against all types of impact metrics. But if UK science is to be more responsive to the world’s development needs, we need an open debate on how the current research environment (dis)incentivises people to collaborate within and across borders. A big part of the question is whether the metrics and research assessments that shape funders’ mindsets are inclusive, recognise excellence beyond one-size-fits-all definitions, and support it everywhere, not just among northern elites.

Until research systems stop glorifying self-achievement, qualifications and titles and start rewarding dedication to collaborative values and mutual learning, collaboration will remain, in essence, transactional rather than transformational. And unless policies acknowledge the inevitable trade-offs between national interests and international development, harnessing knowledge for global prosperity will remain a faint promise.

Maru Mormina is a senior researcher at the Nuffield department of population health at the University of Oxford; Romina Istratii is a research associate at the SOAS University of London; and Alex Lewis is director of research strategy at the University of Surrey.

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