What does ‘strengthen research capacity’ actually mean, and how can we do it?

Leaders of research consortia face a difficult task in carrying out research and improving research capacity, but embedding a specialist team to make recommendations provides great gains

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Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine,Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)
28 Sep 2022
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Strengthen research capacity: how do we do it?

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The global crises of humanitarian disasters, climate change and global health demand a concerted international effort. But poorer countries, while facing the most acute crises, have the least capacity to play their part in the global research effort. In these countries, organisations that produce high-quality research are authorities’ go-to centres for solving local and national problems. Consequently, research funders with a development agenda are increasingly requiring their large research programmes – often operating through multi-partner international research consortia – to have dual goals: to carry out research and contribute to strengthening organisations’ research capacity.

Research consortia bring together several organisations, often across different countries, to tackle a specific complex research problem over, say, three to five years. The partner organisations within a consortium are strategically selected by the consortium leaders to have diverse but complementary expertise that can be applied to the research problem. The type of partner organisations selected for an international research consortium are predominantly university departments or research institutes but may also include, for example, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government agencies or commercial companies.

The size and breadth of consortia means that in addition to doing the research, they  can use their pooled resources to strengthen the infrastructure and workforce of their less-well-resourced partner organisations. This makes research consortia an attractive model for funders that invest in enhancing research capacity. For example, senior researchers in a consortium can provide training and mentoring in many disciplines and research methods, while equipment and technical skills can be shared among the partner organisations and gaps in organisations’ professional research services (such as finance and IT) can be filled by consortia-funded staff.

Excellent researchers often become consortium leaders because they are experts in their research topics; they are also likely to be good at supervising PhD students and early career researchers. They may even be great communicators or managers. But they are unlikely to also have the qualitative skills and in-depth knowledge of concepts and tools needed to transform organisations’ research systems. We – rightly – expect research outputs to be excellent; surely we should expect the systems and processes producing that research to be excellent too? Excellent in that they are conducive to the well-being of the whole research workforce and that they favour collegiality and impactful research over “publish or perish” drivers.

Yet, practical guidance to help consortium leaders assess and enhance research capacity is scanty and rarely based on evidence. The evidence that is available is generally of poor quality and peppered with anecdotal self-assessments. It is scattered across disciplines and heavily biased towards enhancing individuals’ research skills rather than organisational change.

Researchers’ difficulties in chasing dual goals are compounded by funders’ reticence to be explicit about their expectations for “strengthening research capacity” and by opaqueness about how they will evaluate any improvements. For the most part, this is all left to the research leaders’ discretion.

Funders may also be struggling with how to be more decisive. There is no agreement on or consensus understanding of “research capacity”, even within the research community. There are almost no practical and validated indicators they can use to judge success – perhaps because minimal research has been commissioned to find out. 

This ambiguity on the part of funders means that, instead of their programmes being used as an opportunity to learn how to do better, there is ongoing reinvention of many wheels and only snail’s pace forward motion. Not optimising learning opportunities wastes time and money. Worse still, it risks raising, and then not fulfilling, the expectations of partner organisations. Disillusionment and distrust may follow.

It is not difficult – or even expensive – to break the cycle of over-ambitious expectations being placed on research consortia to transform organisations’ research systems, which leads to the current underwhelming outcomes. But it will require a seismic shift in how consortia-based programmes are conceived and operate.

First, consortia leaders – who in our experience are absolutely committed to facilitating better research systems – should be left to focus on their research and their consortia.

Second, a specialist team should be embedded within programmes to sensitively listen to everyone’s voice, to learn what works and find out what doesn’t and why. This team should have the tools and skills to systematically assess research capacity and, in partnership with organisations, develop bespoke action plans to fill the gaps. Team members should have expertise in research systems and social science and be up to date with the latest evidence for strengthening organisations’ research capacity. They should be respectful of different cultures and contexts and be skilled in conducting interviews and analysing qualitative data.

The role of this embedded team is to make real-time, impartial and research-informed recommendations about how to improve approaches to strengthening research systems within and beyond a programme’s lifetime. Programme managers, funders and consortium leaders can then work together to make adjustments based on the team’s recommendations. This clear demonstration of responsiveness to feedback by consortium and programme leaders builds trust and also helps makes consortium members feel valued. They become empowered to drive more changes.

Having such “learning teams” embedded in multiple programmes will produce a step change in the speed and breadth of new global knowledge. They add substantial value for little additional cost. Their outputs will quickly help answer key questions such as how best to transform organisations’ research systems, what works in what situations and how to sustain the benefits. They will also highlight the breadth of research strengths in the organisations – information that public policy units can use to raise their organisations’ profile with policymakers and demonstrate their role as a key player in their local economy.

Embedded learning teams do work in practice. But there are some underlying principles to be aware of. They should sit at the interface of the consortia members, programme managers and research funders – but operate independently of them all. They should have unfettered access to consortia members. They need to take a systems approach, be trustworthy and respectful and be good at gathering information from interviews. Their recommendations must promote sustainability of capacity gains and guide decision-making – their methods must therefore stand up to scrutiny so that their findings are robust and publishable. Rapid mechanisms must be in place across the programme for acting on the team’s recommendations. Most importantly, the learning and subsequent actions should be focused on the needs of the beneficiary organisations. The actions should be led, owned and sustained by them.

Research consortia could be a powerful mechanism for sustainably strengthening organisations’ research capacity and for creating supportive environments for their research workforce. To realise this potential, funders should be more proactive in requiring consortia to carry out systematic, sustainable research capacity strengthening and in evaluating the outcomes. Consortium leaders need more practical support, including from an embedded specialist team, to fulfil these requirements. By working together, those who fund and lead research can accelerate learning about carrying out better research capacity strengthening, which will ultimately empower organisations in poorer countries to make a more equitable contribution to the national and global research effort.

Imelda Bates is the head of the Centre for Capacity Research, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She focuses on enhancing research capacity in institutions and on highlighting and valuing the role that research support professionals and laboratories play in the research effort.

Justin Pulford is a senior lecturer and deputy head of the Centre for Capacity Research, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. His primary interest is the production and uptake of evidence in support of research systems strengthening.

Lorelei Silvester is programmes manager at the Centre for Capacity Research, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She is experienced in collaborating with partner institutions to identify research capacity gaps and helps to develop and monitor robust, practical action plans that deliver tangible benefits.

They are all members of the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN)

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