Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the Glasgow Centre for International Development (GCID), University of Glasgow
(Int Dev 05)

How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve? 


1. The UK Government supports scientific capacity building in developing countries in a variety of ways either directly through DFID, albeit on a limited scale, or through various agencies such as the Medical Research Council, the Royal Society, the British Council and the Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme. It should also be noted that some funders of scientific capacity building are not tied to government and do extremely valuable work. The Wellcome Trust is one such example.

2. However, scholarships and support that come from such sources can be very difficult for young scientists from developing countries to access successfully, mainly because there are relatively very few such schemes and the students face fierce competition from top students from very well-funded western countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, where their training has provided them with a stronger background and skill set to compete for these scholarships. With the emphasis on research excellence in UK universities, and this is of course has to be supported, there is however not always an incentive to recruit young scientists from developing countries onto these schemes. It is our view that if we really are to make difference to raising sustainable research capacity in developing countries, there has to be established a specific funding scheme, generously funded and specifically targeted at the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

3. It is the case that there has been a lack of interest by the UK Government in supporting the tertiary sector in developing countries and this has thus contributed, perhaps unwittingly, to the erosion of research capacity in these countries. Up until the 1990s, there had been considerable support for tertiary education in developing countries, and, as a result, many countries had strong universities, a vibrant research culture, an adequate scientific capacity and excellent academic links with UK institutions. However, a refocusing of British support in favour of primary, and to some extent secondary, education has had a hugely damaging effect on university education in many developing countries, and hence on those countries’ domestic research capacities. This was sometimes matched by reductions in support by governments in developing countries themselves because of national level budgetary pressures. The result has been an impoverished university sector in many countries, in which there is ironically a growing demand for tertiary education, but a limited capacity to provide it at an acceptable level of quality. In many countries this has led to the growth of a private university sector in which standards are frequently very poor, with little meaningful contribution to building research and scientific capacity.

4. The problem of hugely reduced research and scientific capacity in developing countries has at least now been recognised by some donors and some governments. This has very much come to the fore with the dominance of the MDGs, and the realisation that one of the key reasons that most sub-Saharan African countries are going to miss most of the targets is that there is a significant lack of domestic scientific capacity to deliver them. President Kagame has observed that primary school leavers will make little or no impact on poverty reduction related to the MDGs, and the pressing need is for more well-trained researchers and scientists coming out of well-resourced African universities if the MDGs and other poverty reduction measures are to be achieved. In Tanzania, there is a commitment by government to building national science capacity in support of national development ambitions. Consequently, many donors are now giving greater priority to capacity building; recently, for example, SIDA announced the full funding of 43 PhD training scholarships for Rwanda explicitly to build sustainable research capacity within that country, and there are various EU programmes, such as the ACP Science and Technology Programme, which are also explicitly aimed at building scientific capacity.

5. There is still a marked deficit of opportunities for PhD level training for developing country scientists.  To become an independent researcher capable of accessing his/her own competitive funding (a clear measure of scientific sustainability), the absolute minimum requirement of any credible applicants is a PhD.  There is a huge wealth of scientific talent in developing countries, and often many BSc and/or MSc level researchers with great skills but few opportunities to advance their career  through PhD training because few opportunities exist in their home countries for such training, the costs of doing so in a western country like the UK are prohibitive (here we charge circa £14k per year; by contrast, many EU countries like France and Italy, for example charge either no fees, or as little as 1000 Euros per year, for African students), and there are very few scholarship opportunities for these students anyway.


What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries? 


6. At the outset, there needs to be a very clear commitment by donors and recipient governments to supporting scientific capacity building as a key development priority. This commitment is not only to be enshrined in policy statements, but also has to be followed up significant financial input.

7. A very successful model, which was previously supported by the UK Government through schemes such as the Academic Links Programme, needs to be revitalised but significantly upscaled. Long-term partnerships between universities and institutes in developed countries and those in developing countries need to be promoted, built on trust and mutual support. Capacity building should be at the heart of such arrangements, with mutually agreed outcomes and targets, but with a clear recognition by donors that this is NOT a short-term fix, and that patience must be shown. Because the scientific capacity of developing countries has been allowed to wither so dramatically over the last two decades, the Committee should be under no illusion about the scale of the rebuilding task to be undertaken.

8. As well as training programmes for early career researchers to build capacity, there is an equally important need for mid-career researchers and scientists to have exposure to international research through two-way exchange programmes of students, supervisors, experts etc. This could also be most effectively achieved through partnerships’ development between UK and developing world universities, research institutes etc, supported by DFID funding.

9. There is a need for investment in people at developing world universities and institutes to encourage them to stay and develop their career in their home countries, and to develop internationally competitive teams.  This can be achieved through the increased availability of significant local grant funding, as the lack of such funding has been a major factor in encouraging many young scientists to leave developing countries to work and settle in Europe and the USA. In addition, the provision of some source of salary buy-out to allow local researchers and scientists the time and space to do research, instead of being burdened by large administration and/or teaching loads. All too often, shortly after graduating with a PhD, researchers and scientists quickly are promoted to more senior managerial positions in their institutions, taking them out of research. If research and scientific salaries, or other support mechanisms, can be funded, this will reduce this loss of expertise to the domestic scientific community. Equally, investments in the provision of technical support, the creation AND maintenance of good research facilities, and collaboration opportunities with UK mentors, where appropriate, will all help to create a supportive research environment in which local scientists will want to stay.

10. A potential model of how this might look is the Wellcome Trust Fellowship scheme for students from developing countries. This supports the best and brightest scientists from low income countries to develop their career in their home country, well financed, with the opportunity to concentrate on cutting-edge research and to develop deep collaborations.  The Wellcome-sponsored ‘Afrique One’ consortium is an example of a scheme that is specifically designed to help build capacity through investing in promising early-career African researchers to establish themselves, along with their associated research group within their own country, supported by mentoring and in-country training by relevant UK experts.


How does the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the scientific capacity building activities it supports? Is further assessment or oversight required? 


11. We are frankly unclear how the Government monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of scientific capacity building, but suggestions for monitoring and evaluating include metrics such as evidence of the retention rates of young scientists in developing countries; evidence of changes in levels of funding for science in developing countries; monitoring of expenditure on science as a percentage of GDP in developing countries to assess government commitment; the development of an index of scientific outputs (papers), successful research grant applications by researchers specifically and explicitly as PIs; and measures of impact as seen through sustainable development interventions.

12. There is also the possibility of research assessment exercises (similar to the RAE/REF) across developing regions to assess the relative scientific strengths of institutions. This form of competition can drive up quality as happened in the UK following the introduction of the RAE over 20 years ago. However, given the costs associated with developing and managing such an undertaking, we would signal some caution, given that such funds might be more usefully deployed to the central challenge of building scientific capacity in support of poverty reduction.

What role does DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser play in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies? 


13. It is not wholly clear to us what role DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser plays in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building policies. We do strongly feel, however, that there is considerable scope within the research budget of the Research and Evidence Division of DFID to embody research and scientific capacity building as a central element of any research grant proposals which it receives. This is essential for the creation of a sustainable research base in developing countries.

14. However, there needs to be a clear understanding developed of what the ultimate goal of capacity building should be, and this should be defined by appropriate stakeholders from developing countries, in collaboration with stakeholders from the UK, to give ownership and a clear sense of purpose and direction.


How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors? 


15. There has been a marked improvement in the way that government activities are co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sectors and there is clearly an opportunity to improve these still further. The success of the bioscience base in the UK is world-leading because of the support of the government (especially the Research Councils), the private sector (large pharmaceutical companies) and major charities (e.g. the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK). A similar model could potentially be very effective in developing countries.



Declaration of interests

The Glasgow Centre for International Development (GCID) is an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Glasgow with the remit to co-ordinate research and capacity-building activities in international development across all four Colleges of the University (Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences; Science and Engineering, Social Sciences; and Arts), and mainly in collaboration with our partner universities and research institutes in developing countries. Most of these are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Given our remit, we have a keen interest in the outcomes and findings of the Inquiry.

Professor John Briggs

On behalf of the Glasgow Centre for International Development

University of Glasgow

14 December 2011

Prepared 22nd December 2011