Are research links with the developing world still a one-way street?

Researchers in developing countries have often been confined to minor roles as translators and data gatherers. But there are signs that the scales are tipping. Simon Baker considers the extent and nature of collaboration between the Global North and South, while Andrew Thompson reflects on the next iteration of the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund

一月 9, 2020
A man looks on in amusement as Ashley Kirk-Spring, a British scientist studying flies beside the Lomami River in DRC, has to put his head right into the net he has caught them in to examine them closely
Source: Kris Pannecoucke/Panos

Building research links with universities and academics in the developing world would seem to be an obvious way to have societal impact if you are a scholar in places such as Europe or North America.

Not only could it mean your research changing lives in tangible ways, it may also help to improve the expertise and prestige of academics trying to get a foothold in less developed higher education and research systems.

But what is the best way to go about setting up these partnerships in a way that maximises the transfer of knowledge and experience to poorer nations without dictating the terms of engagement and limiting the capacity of the research bases in such countries to grow of their own accord? And are academics and universities from rich nations always sufficiently concerned by such issues – or is their involvement sometimes motivated primarily by a concern to bolster reputations rather than to change lives?

There is little doubt that the world’s least developed research nations desperately need assistance from overseas universities to help them tackle disease, improve infrastructure and deal with climate change. One illustration of their limited domestic research capacity can be obtained by examining the scholarly output of nations categorised by the United Nations as the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) – see graph below. According to Elsevier’s Scopus database, the 45 mostly African LDCs for which it has records were involved in almost 93,000 papers published between 2014 and 2018. If they were a single country, this would put them 37th in the world for scholarly output, just above Egypt and below Greece.

Scholarly output, co-authorship and papers per author

Output and co-authorship

That output may not seem shockingly low – especially when output is assessed per researcher. However, LDCs’ productivity is significantly boosted by the effect of international collaboration. In 2018, about 15,000 of the 21,000 papers they produced involved cross-border collaboration (see graphs above). Inevitably, this entails a major focus on medicine and disease, as well as agriculture and environmental science.

The underlying problems are put into sharp relief by figures from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) on research spending (see graph below). LDCs invested 0.23 per cent of their gross domestic product in research and development in 2016, against a world average of 1.86 per cent. Only three LDCs that have available data committed more than 0.4 per cent: Senegal, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso.

Data on the total number of researchers working in higher education tell a similar story: only Ethiopia and Senegal had more than 1,000 full-time equivalent research staff working in the sector.

Academic output and gross expenditure on R&D

Academic output and gross expenditure on R&D

With such small research bases of their own, the obvious move for LDCs is to seek help from abroad.

However, according to Tom Kariuki, director of programmes at the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) – which funds and publishes research on the continent as well as advising on policy – a careful balancing act is necessary when establishing such links.

“I think we need collaborations in Africa. Given where our science is, there is no doubt that…we can benefit a lot from those collaborations,” he says. But a model whereby an African researcher goes out into the field to perform primary tasks, such as the collection of medical samples, for the benefit of researchers in a lab back in the US or Europe is “no longer welcome”, he adds. “At the end of three, four or five years [of collaboration] a simple question should be answered: what capacity has been left behind [in the developing country]?”

Kariuki cites examples of African universities that have been in partnerships with a university from the developed world for two decades but which, when offered a grant by the AAS, respond that grants must be channelled through the partner university. “After 20 years you have not built enough capacity to receive a small grant?” Kariuki is left asking.

Of course, adopting a goal of more equitable collaboration is perhaps the easy bit. How to go about it when the nation in which a Western institution wants to find a partner has little in the way of world-class research expertise is potentially much harder. Even when a pool of excellent researchers exists in some of the poorest countries, they can be concentrated in one or two leading institutions, creating the risk that other institutions don’t get a look-in when it comes to overseas partnerships.

For instance, in four of the top 10 LDCs by research volume, one institution produced more than 40 per cent of all the research published between 2014 and 2018 (see graph below). In the US and the UK, by comparison, the biggest universities by research output produced 5 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.

Research output and doctoral graduates

Research output and doctoral graduates

David Mould, professor emeritus of media arts and studies at Ohio University and an expert on working with research teams in the developing world, says there will often be senior faculty in a country’s best institutions who “are perfectly capable of going ahead on their own” with a project. Hence, “it is easy for a development organisation that wants some research to call up someone in the capital and say: ‘We need this’”, when perhaps they should instead be going to the regions to help build research capacity there, says Mould, who has most recently worked for a Unicef project in Bangladesh.

Regional academics “understand the terrain; they know the local dialects; they have contacts with the people”. However, the reality is that their research skills may be lacking because they work in institutions that are heavily focused on teaching.

Sometimes, the relevant research – which will often be surveys of a local population regarding health, social or education topics – may even have already been done in the regions, but not disseminated. “There is a big challenge here to get a lot of the research – which may be very relevant – shared digitally,” Mould says, adding that this could save aid agencies “the cost of doing more baseline research”.

A major approach of the AAS has been to fund African projects through a “kind of hub and spoke model”, via which a condition of grants is that institutions in less developed regions of the continent are involved, according to Kariuki.

“Unless we are intentional in catalysing these kinds of inter-African collaborations, the danger we face is that we are simply going to be supporting those that [already] have [capacity] to get even more,” he says. Moreover, there is a research logic to such an approach, since a disease epidemic, such as Ebola, “strikes a region, not just a country, so we need to be building capacity across the regions and the entire continent”.

This capacity-building approach is central to the AAS’ main grant funding platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (Aesa). This programme is backed by some major international funders, including charitable organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.

Kariuki says such organisations have been “very influential” in encouraging leadership and grant decisions to be made within Africa. However, there is a concern that the funding approach from some governments in the Global North has been shifting away from an equitable approach.

One example has been the UK’s recent decision to combine traditional overseas aid funding with research funding: a move introduced by George Osborne in 2015 in order to protect the research budget during austerity while also helping the UK to fulfil its legal commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of its gross national income on overseas development. This funding has been distributed primarily through two funding pots: the Global Challenges Research Fund (see box) and the Newton Fund.

Both are part of the UK’s overseas aid budget – known as Official Development Assistance (ODA) – but fall under the remit of the government department overseeing research, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. But, according to Jude Fransman, co-convener of the Rethinking Research Collaborative and a research fellow at the Open University, this move has created a “conflict” between sometimes competing goals.

“On the one hand, you have the kind of Haldane principle focus on research excellence…and then, on the other hand, you have…ODA compliance implications around impact in developing countries,” she says.

The £700 million Newton Fund, launched in 2014 with the aim of “developing science and innovation partnerships that promote the economic development and social welfare of partner countries”, was criticised in a damning report last year by the UK body overseeing aid spending, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). The report described the scheme as “poorly designed” to meet its “primary purpose” of reducing poverty in the poorest countries, with 90 per cent of the money spent through the fund having stayed in the UK. The government subsequently accepted all six of the commission’s recommendations, including focusing on meeting “the development needs and priorities of its partner countries”.

The GCRF, launched in 2015 with an initial five-year budget of £1.5 billion to “support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries”, has also received some criticism from the ICAI for being rushed and not focused enough on helping to build research capacity in the poorest countries.

Fransman, who led a study commissioned by UK Research and Innovation to explore the concerns raised by the ICAI, says the GCRF prompted some UK universities to set up “departments, incentives or strategic areas” focused on global challenges without the necessary expertise for working in the developing world. As a result, there was a risk of “academics suddenly becoming experts in this area and launching new research projects in developing countries without any understanding of the context or the nature of quite significant humanitarian situations, emergencies or conflicts, with all sorts of potentially disastrous consequences”.

The GCRF – which is expected to be renewed at the end of its initial five-year run next year – also has potential environmental consequences, Fransman adds. An approach focused on universities in the Global North has the potential to be a “carbon nightmare”, with academics constantly flying to developing countries for projects.

Janet Seeley, professor of anthropology and health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, worked for the UK’s Department for International Development during the 1990s. In her view, although the GCRF is “not all bad”, its approach “seems to have been a backwards step” from when research spending decisions were being made by aid experts within the department.

It is also emblematic of a shift within some Western countries towards concentrating more on the trade and soft power benefits of establishing research links with the developing world, rather than on how those links can actually benefit poorer nations.

However, not all developed countries had adopted this mindset: “The Swedish and the Norwegians have had quite substantial programmes [with universities in Africa] and a long-term commitment, which is important,” Seeley says. The Wellcome Trust has also “bucked that trend”, by using universities in the Global North “very strategically” and allowing the South to lead on funding decisions, she adds.

Western aid workers are helped into their PPE by two local staff at an ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone

One crucial aspect of the right approach, according to some development experts, is rethinking what scientific excellence means in the context of countries with little research capacity.

Francesco Obino, head of programmes at the Global Development Network, an international group that supports social science in the developing world, says the problem is that a Northern view of scientific excellence “by definition” excludes “the large majority of researchers in favour of those in top institutions globally. But particularly and disproportionately, [it excludes] those based in developing countries.”

For example, like many funders in the developing world, the Gates Foundation has a “very clear focus on finding solutions to large development challenges”, which it interprets as an imperative to “support the best possible scientific knowledge”, he says. “In doing so, like many other donors, the foundation has bought into the idea that scientific merit and excellence is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition in the quest for ‘solutions’ and innovation in global development. It has meant more focus on working with developing country researchers that are already excellent, and less emphasis on building research capacity locally, in a systematic way.”

That said, Obino notes that the foundation has at least “been thinking about research capacity and what it means to strengthen national research systems in developing countries, which is excellent news”.

Fransman says that traditional academic publishing and metrics can also be a hindrance to improving research in the developing world because they may fail to pick up the useful work that non-governmental organisations or local consultancies are doing on the ground but that isn’t always published in academic journals.

“One of the arguments for the continued dominance of UK scientific expertise is that capacity isn’t strong enough in, for example, African countries, and that [perception] is partly supported by this kind of false idea of research not being produced in these areas,” Fransman says.

This is one reason why Kariuki says a key strand of the AAS approach is to move away from viewing research outcomes through the lens of metrics. A paper that ends up having a direct impact on a poor community in Africa is potentially “much more excellent” in the context of the developing world “than a paper in Nature that no policymaker cares about”, he says.

“For us in Africa, I would be bold enough to say [that moving away from metrics as a measure of excellence] is part of the decolonisation of science that we would like to see happen,” Kariuki adds. For similar reasons, the AAS has decided to “embrace open science” and set up a post-publication peer-review platform called AAS Open Research as an alternative to peer-reviewed journals.

However, Kariuki says that such experimental approaches do not mean compromising on quality, and he acknowledges that building scientific excellence in Africa is still vitally important: “We need to have a critical mass of well-trained, highly skilled people…who are leading the agenda and doing the implementation. We also have to make sure that as we build the numbers and get to that critical mass…we are keeping a very keen eye on the quality of the research output and research outcomes.”

Nils Stenseth, a professor at the University of Oslo who co-authored a comment piece in Nature last year on how best to build up research capacity in Africa, also believes that investing widely in academic institutions in the developing world is the best way to improve the situation in the long run.

“There are some good academic institutions in Africa but there need to be many, many more, and they need a long-term perspective far beyond individual projects,” he says.

Overseas doctoral training for talented young African researchers is likely to remain necessary for the foreseeable future given the low numbers of PhDs currently produced by the continent (see graph above), but having stronger domestic institutions will help to attract such researchers back for postdoctoral work.

“It may become attractive to go back if the institutions have infrastructure development. So this is the building of academic institutions just the way we do it in Europe and the US,” Stenseth says.

He is also sanguine about young African academics striving to publish in top journals because this can be the route to becoming visible to the outside world and, therefore, encouraging fruitful collaborations.

For his part, Kariuki is well aware of the importance of breaking the brain drain cycle. He says the aspiration informs the four-year postdoc programme that the AAS has with the US National Institutes of Health – backed by the Gates Foundation – whereby researchers spend two years in the US before being supported back in their home institution in Africa.

“If we didn’t offer that support after their NIH training, there is a big chance we would lose them very quickly,” he says.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Seeley also sees support for postdoctoral researchers as the “fundamental gap” that needs addressing. In universities in the Global North, short-term funding is often available to help PhD graduates finish writing up their publications and independent grant applications. But in the Global South, such funding is “very scarce”, Seeley says.

For others involved in international development, however, it would be wrong to focus too much on ensuring that researchers in the world’s poorest countries are comparable to academics in established universities.

“Whether someone trained as a researcher ends up being a world-class academic is really not the question we should be asking,” says the Global Development Network’s Obino. “You need people to understand research, to teach it, to use it and to talk about it, too. Investing in research capacity is much broader than singling out scientific excellence.”

But his more fundamental point is that, ironically, much of the advice offered on building research capacity in developing countries is actually based more on hunch than hard evidence.

“There is still a lot of homework to be done to understand how exactly international funding of research or…capacity building strengthens local research systems,” he says.

Excellence and equity: what should a Global Challenges Research Fund look like?

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the most far-reaching reimagination of the international development agenda since the ideological battles waged amid the Cold War and decolonisation.

The time has gone when solutions to problems located in the Global South were to be found in the Global North. The SDGs recognise that lifting people out of poverty requires North-South partnerships that reconnect economic with social and environmental issues.

Conflict and state fragility, for instance, are major drivers of modern poverty. Climate change is threatening global gains on poverty reduction. And the fact that 60 per cent of Africa’s population is aged under 25 makes the quality and quantity of young people’s employment a pressing global concern.

In short, “research for development” will need to look radically different from what we’re used to. And the overriding aim of the UK’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – which we hope will be renewed for another five years when its first iteration ends next year – should be to catalyse the transition.

There is still widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid, so the fund must improve the international development community’s sense of what aid should be spent on – strongly informed by what matters to people in developing countries. And the focus should be on bridging the knowledge gaps that impede effective implementation and delivery. That doesn’t mean confining investment to highly applied, micro-level research that yields results only in the short term. It means getting to grips with the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of poverty – and also recognising that relevant research may take place outside the immediate context of development policy and practice.

The SDGs are inherently holistic and demand interdisciplinary approaches to understand and manage the potential conflicts and synergies between them. An example is the GCRF’s Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub. Ensuring water security for the growing proportion of the world’s population threatened by lack of it demands a broader view of water systems – technical, social, cultural and environmental. Working with 12 partner countries and 55 partner organisations, this hub seeks to address pressures ranging from pollution and land degradation to extreme weather and urbanisation by engaging with local communities, water catchment managers and government ministries.

By linking this and the other 11 hubs to the UN Development Programme’s 60 new SDG Accelerator Labs, we hope to contribute to the UN’s capacity to tackle complex and fast-moving challenges, building on what works locally. We also hope to help the UNDP build academia into its ambition for greater cross-sectoral collaboration, alongside NGOs, governments and, increasingly, the private sector.

The University of Birmingham’s Creative Drought project, focusing on water management in southern Africa, is a good example. It combines local knowledge, gained through engaging farmers and community leaders, with hydrology science. Recovering stories helps convert a fatalistic local perspective into a proactive search for solutions to prepare for and mitigate future droughts.

The UN 2030 Agenda’s insistence that “no one should be left behind” demands more equitable partnerships between Northern and Southern researchers. Leaving behind the hardest to reach initially, in the hope of bringing them along later, is no longer an acceptable price of progress in a world of growing inequalities and – in sub-Saharan Africa, at least – extreme poverty.

It is a striking statistic that 85 per cent of the world’s refugees remain in the Global South while 85 per cent of research on refugees and forced migration is by scholars in the Global North. We need strong ethical protocols on North-South collaborations, paying careful attention to who sets the research agenda, who the research is for, who designs the research, and who owns the knowledge.

In 2016, the number of countries experiencing violent conflict hit a 30-year high, with civilians increasingly vulnerable to the direct and indirect effects. This is why former UN general secretary Kofi Annan has insisted that addressing conflict is now a development imperative. Focusing geographically on areas suffering protracted conflict will be important, as will research on conflict causation and prevention, and on post-conflict recovery (such as the role of education in fostering greater understanding of historic conflicts and atrocities).

Food security and climate must also be fully factored into the study of the development-security nexus. The origins of war in Syria, for instance, have been located by scholars in a significant depletion of water availability since 2003, leading to sharp increases in food prices, malnutrition and migration to urban areas.

While technological innovation co-evolves with economic, social and political systems, it can be harnessed to deliver on the SDGs. Many GCRF projects are exploring advances in wind, solar and battery technologies, as well as the development potential of digital technology. A good example is M-Africa, a mobile phone-connected diagnostic for HIV, which is transforming access to testing and treatment in South Africa, minimising the need for clinic visits. In parallel, a smartphone app is being piloted to investigate participant feelings about self-testing, as well as the phone counselling and support that follows.

Several GCRF technology-based projects raise questions about how cutting-edge science relates to development. For instance, a University of Leeds project to extend access to radio astronomy to southern Africa revealed the need to train African physics graduates in how to operate and exploit the technology. The training of basic scientists, in the firm belief that this will eventually contribute to development, is a facet of human capacity building that definitions of overseas development aid must accommodate if a broader spectrum of the Northern research base is to engage Southern partners meaningfully and effectively.

Moreover, research funding agencies need to be more aware of what each other is funding regarding the SDGs and more willing to spur joint working and international collaboration. They will need to encourage and empower the next generation of researchers in particular to work on global challenges in transformative ways, but without overly directing them or trying to fit their ideas into straitjackets.

In these ways, funding agencies can maximise their contribution to development without undermining either excellence or equity.

Andrew Thompson is executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and UK Research and Innovation’s international champion, overseeing the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund. This is an edited version of a lecture he gave at the University of Birmingham on 29 October 2019.


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