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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

When human resources are lacking: research capacity development in Tanzania

Governmental funding can be either a planned policy or it can be an occasional, unprogrammed affair. The latter can have serious effects on capacity building for research, not just among think tanks but also in governmental institutions. Stephen Magesa, Bonard Mwape and Leonard Mboera et al have done a case study of the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR hereon) in Tanzania that provides insights on the challenges which hinder human resource capacity building for research. As is usually the case, the lack of governmental interest in funding research capacity seems to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Capacity building is a priority for health research institutions in many developing countries in order to reach the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. One of the biggest challenges they face when trying to bolster capacity building is the lack of human resources for research: there tends to be an emphasis towards personnel for health and an exclusion of personnel for health research.

The study’s objectives were to establish the human resource health research capacity of the NIMR; to track research capacity development processes and challenges encountered in creating a group of multidisciplinary scientists; and to identify the prevailing human resource health research development plans as well as to propose strategies for increasing said capacity. The authors collected data by reviewing the NIMR’s personnel, including academic qualifications, training, research experience and research output. They looked at researchers’ CVs in order to understand their employment record and area of expertise. The NIMR’s staff was also asked to fill out a questionnaire, and in-depth interviews with NIRM management were undertaken.

Researchers found that after 30 years of existence, the National Institute for Medical Research has not been able to develop a sustainable mass of health researchers capable of doing multidisciplinary research that will help in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. At its beginning, in 1979, there was a low number of scientific staff, due to the fact that most scientists during the East African Community were from Kenya, Uganda and the UK. When the Community broke up, all except one researcher left the country. The government provided the Institute with only USD$6,000, so that NIMR had to urgently seek for foreign support.

During this time, there were few candidates that fit the NIMRs requirements. As there was only one university in the country, there were very few individuals trained in scientific methods. The Institute had also decided to set very high standards for researchers to be employed, making it even more difficult to find suitable employees. Additionally, the low remuneration it offered meant that it lost out to other competitors.

During its existence, in order to ensure having competent research staff, the NIMR has always strived to train its research scientists with the goal of having them obtain a doctorate degree; this training program has also served as a motivation for staying at the Institute as signaled by the employees interviewed. Unfortunately, funding for this training has had to come from foreign sources as support from the government has been very low:

The NIMR acts as the research arm of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, and receives core funding from the Tanzanian treasury. However, this study found that from 2000 to 2010, the mean allocation for research has remained below 5%; between 2006 and 2009 there has been no funding allocated to the NIMR for research.

This has made sustaining the institutional training program a challenge.  Infrastructural development such as putting up and equipping laboratories has also suffered as it also depends mostly on foreign funding. The way the NIMR has obtained financial resources has been through open competitions, links with collaborators and partnerships with networks that support research and capacity building. Most training during 1980 until 1989 was supported by grants from the World Health Organisation, the Swiss Development Cooperation, the British Council and the Swedish International Development Agency. Beginning in the late 1990s, there was an increase in the number of partnerships, which have been helpful in terms of winning large grants, accessing training opportunities and building research infrastructure. As a result, there are now more qualified researchers at the Institute.

However, nowadays one of the main challenges is the lack of resesarchers with experience in non-communicable diseases like diabetes, mental health, substance abuse, and others. During its existence the NIMR has focused mainly on communicable diseases like schistosomiasis, malaria, sleeping sickness, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, as they were considered a priority due to their prevalence in Tanzanian society. While still quite important to address today, there is growing preoccupation that these diseases could overlap with non-communicable diseases which would aggravate the disease burden in Tanzania. The NIRM does not currently have adequate capacity for researching non-communicable diseases. Another area that requires attention is research on maternal and child health, a Millennium Development Goal. This situation highlights the importance of having research scientists that cover a broad range of expertise to conduct proper multidisciplinary research.

The authors conclude by suggesting that a program be put in place to ensure the capacity building process as well as to urgently increase local funding for capacity building and research. Since qualified research scientists are not readily available on the local job market, they must be developed: training programs are crucial, and for these, laboratories, equipment and most of all funding are needed.

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