Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by
The Association of Commonwealth Universities (Int Dev 11)

The ACU and declaration of interests

1. The ACU is a membership association of 533 higher education institutions (HEIs) across the Commonwealth. Two thirds of our members are in Asia and Africa. Since the late 1960s our membership profile has been strongly southern; we have been engaged with supporting developing country science over several decades and are familiar with the wider shifts in policy. Much of our work in the past decade has focused on supporting our members in Sub-Saharan Africa, and we therefore draw particularly on this experience in this submission.

2. The ACU provides the secretariat for the DFID-funded Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, and has worked with DFID in the past on a number of projects. It is currently the lead partner in the DFID funded Development Research Uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa (DRUSSA) programme.


3. One of the greatest problems facing developing country scientific and technological research capacity, and one of the barriers to the rebuilding of such capacity, has been the
de-institutionalisation of research. Inadequate funding and support for research at national level, the need for academics to supplement poor salaries, and the reliance on donor and other external funding has meant that in many cases researchers have become consultants for hire. [1] Research has become more individualistic and often undertaken as a fee-earning enterprise, rather than reflecting the collaborative work of HE research departments. In many cases it has been of the problem-solving, consultancy variety, with frequently changing and short-term assignments, leaving many researchers with no discernible specialism or focus and with core disciplines weakened as a result.

4. Development agencies have and continue to contribute to this problem. Frustrated by the declining ability of HEIs to undertake and manage good research, many funders have opted to approach individuals instead of institutions. The brightest minds have thus become development analysts, producing applied and policy-driven work to answer donor questions instead of independent and rigorous basic research. While policy-relevant and applied research is vital, it must undoubtedly be built on strong foundations of basic science.

5. The decline of higher education institutions in many developing countries during the 1980s and 1990s has been well documented and widely discussed over the last ten years. [1] The development of mass higher education systems internationally has been reflected in a huge growth in undergraduate enrolments in developing countries. [2] In most cases this has not been met by proportional increases in public spending; already overstretched facilities must now serve many more students. In Tanzania as a whole, the student-staff ratio grew by 60% between 2003 and 2007 to 24:1. At the University of Ghana it grew by 93% between 2000 and 2008 to 29:1. [3]

6. The success of developing country science, and the strength and sustainability of the research base, will depend on the strength of the tertiary system. Developing countries have already made firm commitments to expand their tertiary sectors; the success of science will therefore depend on whether or not these universities succeed. Many tertiary systems are fragile and in need of external support. The world cannot afford to let systems in developing countries collapse again as in the 1980s and 1990s. [4]

7. Scientific capacity and research capacity are two related but different things. We understand research capacity to be about the capacity of HE and research institutions to carry out basic research, whereas scientific capacity is broader and includes the production of scientifically trained graduates for other industries and sectors. Higher education institutions are central to both, but we concern ourselves here with the former – the capacity of the research system in universities and other national research institutes. In understanding capacity, DFID highlights three distinct but interrelated levels to be addressed– individual, organisational and institutional. [5] As is common in the tertiary sector, the word ‘institution’ is used here to refer to higher education institutions, rather than in the sense of overarching national/regional frameworks implied by DFID’s definition.

8. There is an urgent need for doctoral training in many tertiary systems. In 2007/8 only 28% of academic staff in Ghana, 15% in Mozambique and 12% in Uganda held doctorates. [6] This masks huge variation at institutional level, and between public and private institutions.

9. The proportion of postgraduate enrolments is low and falling in some cases. Over 2000-2008 the University of Ghana witnessed a drop in the number of postgraduates as a proportion all students from 14% to 7% [7] . While master’s student numbers have grown in many universities, doctoral enrolments have been low and growth has been particularly low year on year. Between 2001 and 2007 doctoral growth at Makerere University was 2.3%; at the University of Nairobi it was minus 17%. Quality of training is critical, to ensure that PhDs are completed, and that those graduating can become independent researchers. In 2007, the University of Botswana produced just four PhDs, the universities of Dar es Salaam and Ghana 20, and Makerere 23. Nairobi by contrast had 32 doctoral graduates.

Q1: How does the UK Government support scientific capacity building in developing countries and how should it improve?

10. UK Government provides important support at a number of levels. DFID contributes significantly through research funding, scholarships for study in the UK, and through the provision of funding other training and capacity building support, either embedded within research programmes or as free-standing initiatives. Notable examples include: the multi-year Research Programme Consortia; support for master’s and PhD study through the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission; the Development Partnerships in Higher Education (DelPHE) scheme which enables partnerships between HEIs in north and south; and contributions to the work of organisations such as INASP [8] and to programmes such as Development Research Uptake in Sub-Saharan Africa (DRUSSA). Further support is provided by BIS, via grant in aid to the national academies [9] and through the research councils, to enable UK scientists to collaborate with developing country counterparts. In such contexts, capacity building is not the primary objective. The UK Government also provides important capacity support through contributions to multilateral initiatives, including the European Development Framework, which supports EDULINK, the ERASMUS programmes, as well as the mobility instruments funded by the EC’s framework programme.

11. The development of genuine and sustainable research capacity is a complex process, and understanding of how to do it well is evolving. Too often, capacity development is seen to be a natural consequence of research funding; support to capacity at one level (eg individual) is often assumed to contribute to the development of capacity at other levels (eg at HEI level). This is not always the case. A handful of workshops as part of a research project do not constitute capacity building; and training an individual will not necessarily increase an institution’s research capacity unless that individual has the necessary support and resources.

12. Producing high quality research at the same time as building capacity is sometimes seen as incompatible. In some instances it may be possible to achieve both at once; in others there is a risk that longer-term capacity building is overlooked in the immediate pursuit of high quality research outputs. Much depends on the approach adopted and the specific needs of the HEI or the discipline in question. Embedding research in a capacity building initiative, such that a programme designed to build capacity provides opportunities for research to be undertaken, but where the success of the initiative is not judged primarily by the quality of the work produced may be more appropriate in some situations. [10]

13. Effective capacity building efforts must acknowledge the interactions between different levels and forms of support. Individuals are part of research institutions and institutions operate in wider policy environments and as part of a national research system. DFID should be commended for its emphasis on research capacity and efforts to improve the way in which it does this. DFID’s existing support to research capacity, and to universities, is currently split across a number of departments and domains (Research & Evidence, UN & Commonwealth, education advisors, and advisors in specialist sectors such as agriculture). DFID should consider developing a specific policy to guide its support to universities, to ensure that its various channels of support are well connected, and to ensure that its current and future support to the sector is more than the sum of its parts. Greater coordination between DFID’s scholarship mechanism and the Research and Evidence Division would be particularly valuable.

14. DFID could also coordinate its work more effectively with other bodies, some of them funded in part by UK Government. The Research Capacity Strengthening Group of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) has provided an important forum for discussion and information sharing, but could be used as the basis for greater collaboration in programme design and implementation.

15. Of particular importance is that DFID coordinate its work effectively with other donors. The UK Government has already committed to do so in its wider aid programme through its signature to the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action. Many HEIs are in receipt of support and funding from a number of donors at once. At the level of the individual institution this can at best be confusing, but at worst wasteful, of time and resources, as well as favouring those institutions which are already well-established and receptive to donor support. HEIs can be over-burdened by multiple and different reporting requirements. A workshop of international funders convened in 2010 explored how donors could work more effectively together to improve universities’ access to their support, whilst also meeting their own reporting requirements. [11] There have been related discussions under forums such as ESSENCE (in health) [12] and under the Europe-Africa ‘Access to Success’ initiative. [13]

Q2: What are the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting research capacity in developing countries?

16. There is a lot that can be done, but there can be no quick fixes. A consistent and long-term policy view is required. Two to three year projects are an insufficient basis on which to deliver meaningful capacity support; 10-20 year time horizons are required. There are a variety of models for research capacity development, and approaches depend heavily on the discipline in question and institutional contexts – some fields may lend themselves to particular approaches, or some institutions may be stronger or weaker in particular areas. [14] Ensuring a range of approaches is likely to be important, and rather than highlight specific models we seek to highlight some of the key underlying issues.

17. Strong research departments require highly skilled people, the facilities and resources to enable them to undertake high quality work, and strong leadership, at senior level, and at the faculty and departmental level. HEIs and research institutes must be able to develop a critical mass of researchers in particular disciplines.

18. Facilities and resources are of course critical (the laboratories, libraries, IT and communications infrastructure, and shared national or regional research infrastructures), [15] as are decent salaries: staff must be properly remunerated if they are to be retained, and if they are to concentrate on long-term science rather than on short-term consultancy. Where it is not feasible to develop sufficient facilities in all institutions, or at least in the immediate future, shared models may be valuable, like the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub. [16]

19. Scholarships, supported by DFID through the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC), have been hugely important, particularly in providing a route for PhD study. [17] There continues to be substantial demand. While alternative modes of delivery (including split site programmes) [18] and the introduction of new doctoral programmes in developing countries provide new routes, traditional scholarships will continue to be a critical and valued part of the package of support. Scholarship programmes are also typically long-term commitments; the CSC’s alumni and evaluation work has a record achievement over a period of 50 years.

20. There is considerable scope to foster postgraduate training initiatives which make use of new models of delivery. These might include virtual graduate schools, several institutions working together to form collaborative doctoral programmes, such as the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA). [19] At master’s level the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research is developing a collaborative social sciences training programme. [20]

21. Strong cores of researchers in a given field, and in a given institution or network of institutions is needed. We must therefore guard against spreading resources too thinly, whilst also recognising that a diverse HE sector is important, and is increasingly the goal of many countries seeking to promote greater access.

22. If the potential of doctoral training is to be realised beyond advancing a single career, individuals must have strong institutions to return to. Well-trained individuals can do little to advance science and research if they have nowhere to work. An often overlooked aspect of research capacity is the ethos and culture of research within an institution. Better facilities and good leadership can go a long way towards fostering this ethos, but cultures of research take time to build and require strong and supportive inter-generational relationships so that junior scholars benefit from the experience of more senior colleagues.

23. Greater attention must be paid to the early research career. The immediately post-doctoral years are critical for an emerging researcher. However, the over-individualisation of research has led some senior staff to see junior colleagues as a threat to be checked rather than as potential to be nurtured and encouraged.

24. This would include developing better career structures for those graduating from PhD programmes, ensuring good mentorship by senior researchers, providing seed funding to initiate new research projects, support to publish, and assistance to establish links with the appropriate networks in their field. A post doc period is also normally needed for a researcher to acquire the necessary skills to run a research group of critical mass. The ACU and the British Academy have recently prepared a more detailed study on this subject, to be published this month, and would be willing to provide an advance copy to the committee. [21]

25. A potentially valuable approach would be to develop a mechanism for 3-5 year early career fellowships, where researchers remain based in their home institutions, but are able to spend six weeks each year in a host institution, within Africa or overseas. This would be a relatively new model, and would utilise the possibilities for remote as well as physical networking. While there is understandable concern over brain drain, in a world where research is increasingly international and collaborative, the question of whether people ‘return home’ is now far too simplistic. Such an approach would be of mutual benefit to science in both the country concerned and in the UK.

26. HEIs need to be able to manage their resources for research and capacity support centrally, and to determine their own priorities. DFID has responded positively here, untying its aid and promoting southern management of research capacity programmes. It should continue to lead the way. HEIs need to be assisted to understand funding frameworks better, including the calculation of overheads and budgeting for staff time more effectively. The ACU has developed a substantial research management programme in recent years to address this need. [22]

Q3: How does the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the scientific capacity building activities it supports? Is further assessment or oversight required?

27. There is a need to develop systems of impact assessment and evaluation which take a long term perspective. It may take many years for the impact of a particular intervention to be realised. PhD training may take three years, but it may be many more before an individual’s impact on the research strength of their institution can be meaningfully assessed. Long term goals are all too often assessed through the completion of short term projects. This tends to encourage defensiveness on the behalf of project implementers or funders (who wish to secure future support), and often only the positive stories are told. The candid evaluation offered by the US-based Partnership for Higher Education in Africa was valuable for its willingness to be self-critical. [23]

28. Research capacity is much more than can be measured by outputs and evaluating through output based metrics alone is therefore misleading. Research capacity depends on networks of individuals collaborating over time, and on cultures of scholarly inquiry.

29. For higher education institutions in receipt of funding, DFID’s approach to evaluation may be too complex. Mechanisms are needed which enable universities to capture the benefit of external support to their own internal capacity, and the lessons and benefits of prior schemes need to be collected, analysed and discussed in greater detail. Too much learning has been lost over the years as interests have changed and schemes have come and gone. The England-Africa Partnerships and Education Partnerships in Africa schemes [24] are a case in point: there are many important stories to tell from these schemes, but there has been relatively little attempt to extract any learning from them. Longer-term retrospective evaluations can provide valuable opportunities for learning in the way that trying to match a project’s goals to its outcomes cannot.

30. Developing country science would benefit from the ability to develop strategies and plan more effectively, and capacity in agenda setting and the undertaking of foresight studies would be potentially valuable here.

31. Pressures to keep DFID’s administrative costs as low as possible are in danger of negatively impacting the effectiveness of its capacity building support. To design, deliver and monitor effective capacity support (even where external organisations are involved as implementing agencies), to understand and evaluate this appropriately, and to ensure continued learning as an organisation, requires sufficient numbers of experienced staff in-house.

Q4: What role does DFID Chief Scientific Adviser plays in determining priorities and in the development and assessment of capacity building priorities?

32. The CSA should be a strong and independent position, in order to effectively and impartially advise on the range of science related work across DFID. The current arrangement where the CSA doubles as head of Research and Evidence Division is thus problematic.

33. DFID’s efforts to recruit specialist research fellows in key areas is worth acknowledging, since it offers an opportunity to ensure that a range of perspectives and disciplinary expertise is brought to bear, not least in contexts where interdisciplinary approaches are essential to gaining better understandings of key development questions.

Q5: How are government activities co-ordinated with the private and voluntary sector?

34. The private and voluntary sectors are important partners for government in research capacity building, and include HEIs, associations and networks of HEIs, NGOs, charitable funding bodies, learned societies and professional associations, as well as private sector consultancies. A visible UK Government strategy or framework for scientific and research capacity to which all parties could adhere, on a voluntary basis, or a widened UK research capacity providers’ network, building on the valuable foundations laid by UKCDS, might help to address the issue of sector coherence.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities

15 December 2011

[1] Wight, D. (2008) ‘Most of our social scientists are not institution based... they are there for hire’ Social Science & Medicine , 66, pp.110-6.

[1] World Bank (2008) Accelerating Catch-up: Tertiary Education for Growth in Sub-Saharan Africa ; Cloete, N., Bailey, T., Pillay, P., Bunting, I. and Maassen, P (2011) Universities and e conomic development in Africa

[2] UNESCO Global Education Digest 2011

[3] Tettey, W. (2010) Challenges of developing and retaining the next generation of academics: Deficits in academic staff capacity at African universities .

[4] This was partly as a result of the policies of the multilateral and bilateral donors who concentrated support on basic education at the expense of the tertiary sector, and encouraged national governments to do the same. See footnote 2 for references.

[5] DFID (2010) How to note: Capacity Building in Research. DFID Practice Paper. London: DFID

[6] Tettey, W. (2010) Challenges of developing and retaining the next generation of academics: Deficits in academic staff capacity at African universities .

[7] Tettey, W. (2010)

[8] The International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP)

[9] The British Academy, Royal Society, and Royal Academy of Engineering

[10] This thinking informed the development of aspects of the DFID-supported Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) which included a research grant stream where recipients would be actively mentored and supported, and benefit from a number of workshops, and where the expectation was not necessarily that the highest quality work would result, but that individuals would develop a much stronger grounding methodologies as a result.

[11] Funders and African Universities: Enhancing the Relationship:



[14] These might include but are not limited to: scholarships and fellowships; competitive research and training grants, including for collaborative work; hub models to connect networks of institutions and researchers around specific disciplines; direct support to individual higher education institutions; support to higher level networks or associations who set wider agendas and distribute grants; funding to multilateral programmes to support larger scale initiatives. The UK Collaborative on Development Studies hosted a recent workshop to discuss the potential of different models and to share experiences between UK and other international donors.

[15] For example, dedicated national and regional broadband networks for academic use, or larger scale facilities in fields such as radio astronomy


[17] See CSC evaluation studies available at




[21] ACU/British Academy (forthcoming) Foundations for the Future: Supporting the early careers of African researchers – copy available on request.


[23] PHEA (2010) Accomplishments of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, 2000-2010: Report on a decade of collaborative foundation investment and A Case Study of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa: Lessons from a Ten-Year Funder Collaborative

[24] Funded by what is now BIS

Prepared 22nd December 2011