Funders, public key to growing research capacity – Study

African-led organisations and initiatives that are geared towards research capacity strengthening in Africa are failing to properly take account of either funders or the general public – two 'populations' that could have a positive influence on boosting research capacity, a new study suggests.

According to a recent (non-peer-reviewed) study published by the Collaboration for Research Excellence in Africa (CORE Africa) in January on the preprint repository, bioRxiv, out of the 11 African organisations* selected, all had programmes aimed at building the capacity of researchers and academics but none of them targeted funders or the general public.

All 11 of the organisations selected had an online presence and were based in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Nigeria.

Researchers as high priorities

Researchers were found to be a high-priority group for research capacity strengthening (RCS), targeted by a majority (73%) of the identified RCS organisations. Academics, research institutions and policy-makers were all medium priorities, targeted by 66%, 46% and 46% of the RCS organisations, respectively.

The study found that 82% of the RCS organisations had programmes or initiatives providing research education and research training opportunities, while only 45% of the RCS organisations offered job opportunities to researchers. Providing funding and facilitating the utilisation of research findings were seen to be low priorities and the two population groups not targeted by RCS organisations were funders and the general public.

The study notes that without direct access to local communities, funders are forced to rely on programme outcomes, effectiveness and gaps in order to make decisions about funding. “Targeting funders in the RCS process and bringing this information to them is therefore key to establishing a negotiating position vis-a-vis funding for RCS in Africa,” the study notes.

It recommends that RCS organisations in Africa develop initiatives that help funders understand what works to improve research capacity in Africa, to inform funding decisions for effective and sustainable programmes.

Public understanding of research

Concerning the general public, the study notes that because the “overall aim” of RCS is to be able to address challenges that affect the general population, it is important that the public understands the need for research to foster appreciation of that need and to create opportunities for engagement in research by the general public.

“Public understanding of the need for research can help generate interest in research, improve research literacy and influence the use of research knowledge. Such understanding could also help create new funding streams to support research in Africa. For example, families with members suffering from chronic illnesses could be influenced through their understanding about research to pool funds for research towards a particular disease.”

Opportunities for research

The study further revealed that the primary tactic to improve research capacity included providing opportunities for research and research training, while strategies to increase research awareness, promote collaboration in research and provide guidance and incentives for research were lacking.

Only four organisations out of the 11 were found to provide funding opportunities for research in Africa. Another four organisations were providing non-financial forms of research support, for example equipment and educational support.

Out of the 11 organisations considered by the study, only the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) aimed to increase research awareness in Africa, specifically by encouraging research as a career choice for young school leavers, it said.

According to Tom Kariuki, executive director of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), which established the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) in conjunction with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) agency to develop science strategies and fund research in Africa, engaging the general public was regarded as “an obligation” for an organisation such as the AAS, which derives support from both private foundations and taxpayers’ money in various countries.

“We certainly can, and plan to do more to engage the general public,” said Kariuki.

Kariuki said the science academy through AESA was introducing programmes such as the Community and Public Engagement Programme, training researchers on interacting with communities and the general public, supporting science communications through the Africa Science Desk, that supports journalists to write more science stories, and publishing lay public focused reviews on AAS Open Research to disseminate more widely our research and innovation agenda for Africa.

* Organisations included in the study were the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA), Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa (ITOCA), the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), the Southern Africa Consortium for Research Excellence (SACORE), Initiative to Strengthen Health Research Capacity in Africa (ISHReCA), the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), Clinical Research Education, Networking and Consultancy (CRENC) and the Africa Centre of Excellence for Infectious Diseases of Humans and Animals in Eastern and Southern Africa (SACIDS-ACE).