Research in the global South is frequently underfunded and overlooked, but a new initiative is boosting a range of studies, from sustainable development, to soil salinity, and care for the elderly suffering chronic diseases.
The first phase of the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) ran for five years and involved 15 African states, with funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF).
Its primary focus was on building the capacity of bodies that fund research to enable them to promote research excellence. It had a budget of $USD11.3million.
A boost for Senegal
The initiative proved positive for Senegal’s research funding system, the head of funding for technological research and development at Senegal’s Ministry for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Soukèye Dia Tine, told a forum marking the end of first phase of the initiative.
The forum workshopped ‘Building scientific systems: lessons from the Science Granting Councils Initiative’ in the Senegalese capital from February 11-13.
Evaluation of phase 1
Participants took stock of phase one of the initiative, identified challenges facing research in Africa and the global South, and sought possible solutions that could inform the second phase.
“The main challenge facing scientific research in Africa is the realisation that aiming for research excellence does not necessarily imply replicating what is done in the global North,” says Robert Tijssen, a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands who co-edited Transforming Research Excellence: New Ideas from the Global South.
IDRC president Jean Lebel told SciDev.Net: “There are significant challenges in relation to the funding of research in Africa, but they are not insurmountable,” adding that capacity-building is also important.
“This is where the SGCI comes in,” he says. “It provides appropriate tools and builds research funding capacity through transparent mechanisms, ethics committees that work effectively, and grant monitoring.”
“Workshops and training sessions have been held for researchers and the teams managing the research, which made it possible to update the documents used for research financing,” Soukèye Dia Tine says, adding that “the SGCI has led to the development of partnerships between Senegal and Burkina Faso on projects pertaining to sustainable development, namely soil salinity and care for older persons suffering from chronic disease.”
The motivation of researchers
Soukèye Dia Tine also highlighted the promotion of public-private partnerships, which was encouraged by the initiative.
When it comes to the overall challenges facing research, Soukèye Dia Tine believes a key problem stems from the motivation and commitment of researchers.
“The challenge is to help researchers present research projects, because tenders are put out, but they don’t always result in appropriate bids,” she says.
Matthew Wallace, senior programme specialist at IDRC, says that beyond its status as a fashionable notion, “research excellence is a term that should be handled with great care to avoid it becoming an obstacle to the promotion of good quality research”.
According to Wallace, who co-edited Transforming Research Excellence, the notion of excellence in research involves two parameters: “It relates to the quality of research, often as defined by peers, and beyond quality, it is about the cream of research, in other words the top five per cent.”
As the challenge for lower-income countries is to conduct research that creates practical solutions to pressing problems, Tijssen is calling for a re-evaluation of the notion of excellence in the context of the global South.
The book, which was launched at the forum, aims to refocus the debate on research excellence in the global South, by contextualising it and inviting bodies that fund research to promote excellence in their own environments and in accordance with their own criteria, rather than in relation to Western norms.
Hopes for Phase 2
The workshop, which was also the starting point of the second phase of the initiative, offered those taking part an opportunity to outline what developments they would welcome in the future.
For Soukèye Dia Tine, this means a larger budget, in order to finance research projects.
Another $USD11 million will support the second phase of the SGCI, with funding coming from the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) and the IDRC, and more funds being allocated to actual research.
As Matthew Wallace explains, “the aim of the first phase was to lay the foundations and ensure that the requisite technical skills were there, in order to then, in the second phase, allow the granting councils to make funds available within their countries”.
Soukèye Dia Tine calls on funders to “give more discretion to bodies funding research and to manage funds made available for researchers, in order to measure their social impact”.
This article has first been published by SciDev.net.