Beyond good intentions – fair research partnerships essential for resilience in low income countries

Inclusive Economy23 May 2018Harry van Schooten, Carel Ijsselmuiden

When working towards sustainable solutions on global health, equity and development challenges, fair and equal partnerships in research collaboration are a major shortcoming. Investment in evidence generation that explicitly builds upon local research and science systems – through fair research partnerships – is an essential step. Without development of their national research system capacities, low and middle income countries (LMICs) will not be able to take the lead in addressing their own problems.

While research institutions in high income countries have gained reputations and scientists have won prizes and made careers on the ‘discovery’ of African diseases and viruses, like Ebola in 1976, West Africa is probably as unable to deal with vaccine research, and even health systems research, surveillance and epidemiology, as it was 40 years ago. Collaborative research between high income countries and LMICs in health, agriculture and other fields deserves a focus on explicitly building local research and science systems – not just to build local capacity, but also to allow economic value to accrue locally.

Why does science matter in development

Investing in science is the bedrock of development in modern, high income countries and regions – because of its contribution to job creation and economic growth – and it should be for LMICs as well. A quick look at the mission statement of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation makes it immediately clear why the Commission spends more than EUR 70 billion on the Horizon 2020 programme – in addition to what individual countries invest themselves – namely, increased economic activity and competitiveness. This is the at ‘high end’ of economic development.

At the ‘lower end’ is the increasing gap between countries that are making it to middle income status and those that remain at the bottom of the pyramid – the ‘fragile states’. Soon, more than 50% of the world’s poor will be living in this group of countries and will remain reliant on foreign researchers and research funders, on their choice of priorities, and on research partnerships, which are most likely led and resourced by high income country institutions.

The development sector funds ‘evidence-generation’, research and scientific activity in low income countries at a level just sufficient to find ‘local solutions to local problems’, and even then usually only if it fits with global trends like sexual and reproductive health programmes. The primary aim is rarely to make LMICs more able to take a leadership role in solving their own problems and in growing their national economic activity, competitiveness or jobs. As far as the ability of LMICs to address their own health, equity and development problems through science, decades of development funding leaves them at square one in terms of using science to solve their own health problems – as the outbreak of Ebola virus disease so clearly demonstrates.

What should happen to create sustainable science infrastructure

Governments of LMICs have the responsibility to formulate their own research priorities and to designate some of their national budgets towards their own science infrastructure. However, even if this were to happen optimally, it is obvious that small proportions of small budgets will not enable LMICs to bridge the science divide with the rest of the world – more is needed.

The second essential pathway to sustainable national evidence system capacity runs through research partnerships – provided these are fair and consistently fair over time. There is no doubt that many of the current partnerships are far from optimal for African and LMIC institutions, for example, in terms of sharing intellectual property, authorship, data ownership, decision making, and access to funding, but also in terms of the ‘business of research’, i.e. the building of social capital, spin-off industry, job creation and economic development.

Towards a standard for fair research partnerships

Currently, there is no widely-accepted framework to ensure that research collaborations are fair. There are a few (excellent) aspirational guidelines, for example, the Swiss ‘11 Principles and 7 Questions’ and even an international convention on benefit sharing. However, until now, there is no global framework nor learning platform for optimizing research collaborations.

This is why the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) began working and has now launched the Research Fairness Initiative (RFI) – a global reporting system and learning platform on collaborations for all key stakeholders in global research for development – including government departments, national science agencies, academic and research institutions, research funders, businesses and large non-profits engaged in research. The initiative asks reporting institutions to make explicit their policies and practices in terms of 15 key aspects of the quality, fairness and equitability of research partnerships, which have been determined through a broad global consultation.

Implementing the RFI has already generated a valuable institution-building exercise for the Tropical Disease Research and Training (TDR) Programme of WHO and their collaborating partners all over the world. Three Senegalese and one Portuguese institution are about to publish their RFI reports, indicating the relevance of the initiative in both high and low income settings. A tool like RFI can be the first step towards creating transparency, contributing to global research partnership standards in support of SDG 17, and facilitating the development of policies and practices that will enable LMICs to build their own capacity for science and knowledge as part of international development collaborations and partnerships. As such, RFI can be considered as creating a building block for growth and resilience in LMICs that, hopefully, will help them to shift out of ‘fragility’.