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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Insights into the state of research systems in developing countries – Part 2

In May 2015, as part of INASP’s strategy development process, we engaged an independent consultant to conduct a phone/skype survey of 39 stakeholders from 26 countries who represent different parts of the research and development system. In her previous blog post, Sue Corbett shared some of the positive messages that emerged from the survey about the progress of research in the south. In today’s blog she looks at the persistence of “old problems” and complex challenges.

As discussed in my previous blog, there have been many positive signs in the development of southern research systems – more equal north-south partnerships, growth in higher education and academic research and an increasing presence of research evidence amongst policymakers, to name a few.

However, significant challenges remain in the creation of a culture and enabling environment for research in the south. One root cause is that the increased funding is nowhere near enough to support more research as well as massive increases in student numbers. Many researchers still struggle with poor equipment and facilities, poor internet connectivity and rely on international donors for grants, meaning that international agendas continue to dominate. Budgets for publication are scarce and respondents reported that much local research and knowledge is currently “lost”.

In a massively expanding system, there is a real shortage of human capital. Existing faculty are stretched and there are few individuals qualified to supervise research at the highest levels.

A second cause of challenges is the persistence of skills gaps. There are many able and determined researchers who want to advance their own careers, contribute to national development and participate as fully as possible in the global scientific community. But in an emergent system, they find themselves unsure of or unfamiliar with the scholarly literature they need to read before embarking on a new project, not clear about how to write up their research to international standards and where they can publish. Much more data is now being collected but the skills to analyse it are generally weak. Journal editors are trying to keep pace with publishing norms set entirely in the north. Government staff are unsure of how to access and make use of high-quality evidence. These are core skills that are typically developed in the north at postgraduate level and thereafter very much taken for granted. But without them, none of the grander, more ambitious plans for research will bear fruit.

A third, additional constraint is that the incentives for researchers to communicate are still overwhelmingly linked to publication in academic journals. There is real scope for southern institutions to break out from the traditional measures and propose innovative measures of social impact.

From a personal viewpoint, I am often surprised by the lack of understanding in the north of the problems that persist in relatively young research ecosystems where higher education is finally making heroic strides forward after decades of underinvestment.

I am not suggesting anyone should gloss over the problems. But, quite frankly, who could expect it to be any other way? Much more interesting than handwringing or a continuing dismissal by the north of research and researchers in the south is the question of how to progress from here – from exactly where each country finds itself right now towards a future in which there is the fullest possible and most equal participation of researchers from south and north in reducing poverty and addressing challenges which affect the whole world.

In recent years, INASP has focused on helping universities, research institutes, professional associations, government departments and others develop their own training so that skills development can continue over the many years it will still be needed. Our network of partners in 23 countries is crucial in helping us assess what is needed and whether the conditions are in place to achieve it and we have been reflecting on the importance of collective approaches and considering research systems. Increasingly, the individuals in that network are also providing peer-to-peer support, which they often find more relevant than the interventions of northern “experts”.

We will use the insights and ideas from the survey in the development of our programmes, so we can be sure we are targeting our expertise and experience at the right issues and in the right places to support the change that countries are pushing for.

We will continue to advocate energetically for the importance of excellent core skills so that their ambitions are realised. And we will continue to support the sharing of knowledge and ideas between our partners and the collective problem solving that is proving so effective in building confidence and momentum in building a better research system in their countries.

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