Supporting countries make their own science

Supporting countries make their own science
26 June, 2014

Seven heavenly virtues

Today saw the launch of the latest ESSENCE Group report – “Seven principles for strengthening research capacity in low- and middle-income countries: simple ideas in a complex world”.

Today saw the launch of the latest ESSENCE Group report – “Seven principles for strengthening research capacity in low- and middle-income countries: simple ideas in a complex world”. It contains the distilled wisdom of a large international group of health research funders, filtered through extensive consultation, of which I was fortunate enough to be a part of and provide some insights from UKCDS.

It’s been a long process. The document started life two years ago as an internal Wellcome Trust think piece, which grew and grew, absorbing staff time from the Trust; before being refined through two international consultations with funders and a workshop in Uganda to bring in African practitioners’ expertise. Finally, it received the attentions of a professional science writer, resulting in the polished document you see before you. My congratulations go to the Wellcome Trust for driving it through.

The end product provides broad guidance in strengthening research capacity, but none of the principles will surprise anyone that works in this space:

  1. Network, collaborate, communicate and share experiences
  2. Understand the local context and evaluate existing research capacity
  3. Ensure local ownership and active support
  4. Build-in monitoring, evaluation and learning from the start
  5. Establish robust research governance and support structures and promote effective leadership
  6. Embed strong support, supervision and mentorship structures
  7. Think long-term, be flexible and plan for continuity

But, as the ESSENCE convenor Garry Aslanyan notes, it’s the process of discussion and debate en-route that’s as important as the final outcome. In fact I’ve just come off a phone call with some USAID staff I met at an ESSENCE meeting in Canada last month. They’re expanding a capacity building programme, PEER Health, and wanted a frank take on what I’d learnt the hard way when running a capacity building project at the Royal Society, and more recently through the group wisdom of the UK Research Capacity Strengthening Group.

UKCDS’ main activity in capacity building is to convene this Group, which brings together the major UK funders and project managers of capacity building programmes across a wide range of scales (£1000’s to £10,000,000’s), working at different levels (from individual to institutional) and across many fields of research, policy, research management and more. A key part of what the Group does is sharing lessons, tapping into the hive mind while projects are in the design stages, and generally lamenting how hard it is to do capacity building well.

It’s a great shame that these discussions on lessons and failures aren’t more open: everyone agrees they should be, but finding the institutional and political space to do so is really tough. But, at least they’re happening in some form! Last year we published our own report on “Learning from [the Group’s] Experience”, but both this and the ESSENCE report are more high-level reflections than granular, candid guidance that some might be seeking.

As the field of capacity building grows and evolves, the ESSENCE document (and all the thought that went into it) is an important codification of what we know. Anyone managing to deliver on all seven principles will run a much more effective programme than I ever managed….

Image credit: Pawel Czerwinski via Unsplash

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