Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by UCL Institute for Global Health (Int Dev 23)

The UCL Institute for Global Health (IGH) is pleased to make a submission to the Committee’s inquiry into Science and International Development.

IGH is developing an institution-wide agenda leading to strategies, programmes, research and teaching to bring UCL’s combined expertise to bear on global health challenges. The Institute coordinates the cross-fertilisation and application of UCL’s expertise to problems of global health.

IGH’s experience with regard to the UK Government’s activity in science and development is largely with DFID and for that reason our response concentrates mainly on DFID’s policy and activity.

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

We would contend firstly that Government should improve its definition of what is meant by capacity building in regard to scientific research. We suggest that scientific capacity developing includes: the development of sustainable infrastructure within a country (i.e. sustainable either within the resources of the country or through income generation); the training of scientists to become discipline leaders and senior managers of global standing; and the establishment of self-sustaining networks of indigenous scientists to deliver research and train appropriate cohorts.

The aim of capacity building should ultimately be to develop sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships between developed and developing countries. It is also important for scientific research to include a component which focuses on implementation to develop a clear understanding of how to improve the influence of research evidence on policies and programmes.

It is not clear that the UK Government overall has scientific capacity building as a key aim. Being more explicit across Government about aims with regard to capacity building would be helpful. In particular, we would advocate a clear statement that Government wishes to support scientific capacity building where appropriate, and the inclusion of capacity building as an outcome in relevant research calls by Government departments.

There may also an important role for the Science and Innovation Network in identifying priority areas for capacity building.

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

There is a key role for DFID in gathering and disseminating evidence on the most effective models and mechanisms for supporting capacity building, and this should be prioritized within DFID research activity. We suggest that DFID research applications should include an explicit statement of how capacity development will delivered, with grant-holders held accountable for this.

DFID has an important role in improving the leadership and capacity of researchers so they can design and deliver appropriate research. Based on the definition of scientific capacity building that we have set out above, we would suggest that DFID should ensure a clear understanding of this and of DFID’s priorities for capacity building among researchers in both developed and developing countries. There should be a clear focus on building skills, human resources and intellectual capacity.

As we argued in our submission to the Government Office for Science’s Science and Engineering Assurance Review of DFID in early 2011, we do not believe that DFID’s Research Programme Consortia model has worked successfully. We make a number of suggestions for priorities that should be embedded in capacity building programmes:

- training the workforce and researchers in developing countries to develop human capacity;

- funding research grants for at least 5 years (recognising that outcomes may be incremental or iterative and will take time to emerge);

- supporting full research costs through grants;

- establishing a research funding stream to improve lab capacity in research institutions in developing countries.

We would suggest that a preferred model of research funding for capacity building would be to issue frequent calls for research in defined areas on a rolling basis which are specific in overall outcomes but leave the design and delivery to the researchers involved. These should support effective partnership research mechanisms between UK and developing country researchers and thus embed capacity building and mutual learning. Alternatively, DFID could seek to build research capacity by supporting multi-country, and ideally cross-regional, research so that countries learn from each other, although we recognise that there may be a challenge in managing such research effectively. A successful example of this model is the projects funded by the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), which uses a brokered approach to bring together complex consortia, comprising groups which previously would have competed against each other for funds, to address clear research aims.

We would also suggest that DFID should explore new ways of supporting universities in developing countries to undertake research, as this is one of the most effective methods of capacity building. Currently universities in developing countries are often peripheral to capacity building efforts because they are more focused on the practical training of researchers than on undertaking research. We noted in our submission to Science and Engineering Assurance Review of DFID that:

There is a need to support research institutions, particularly universities in developing countries, to manage and deliver robust, relevant and high quality evidence. DFID Research Consortia should be expected to have partners with a strong track record of research generation and capacity building in research methods and training. We are fully supportive of DFID’s emphasis on the need to build research capacity in our developing country research partnerships, to strengthen capacity to do and use research at the individual, organisational and institutional level.

Finally, we note that there is a continued tension between developing and delivering successful capacity building programmes, and the pressure from DFID to deliver rapid outcomes and good news stories. We would suggest that having appropriate evaluative goals for successful research capacity building, that recognise that it is likely to occur over the longer-term and in increments, could help to resolve this tension.

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

Our response here refers to DFID’s monitoring and evaluation of research, rather than that of the Government as a whole. There is significant scope to improve the level of interaction between DFID-funded research programmes and DFID staff. There appears to be little time or resource invested in responding to research reports or engaging with what is being learnt through research. Furthermore, there appears to be a disconnect between the DFID staff who commission research, DFID’s technical advisors in the UK and in country offices, and the scientists working on DFID-funded research. This disconnect is likely to impede DFID’s monitoring and evaluation of the research and capacity building that it supports.

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

We feel that there is very little visible role for DFID’s Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA). We would suggest that it would be helpful if the CSA could liaise with research advisers in DFID to identify needs in capacity building in order to inform funding and DFID’s other work in capacity building.

We feel that DFID’s articulation of capacity building remains vague. Although definitions are provided in a guidance note issued by DFID [1] , there is no clear vision of what this means in terms of implementation. We would suggest that developing guidance on implementation to include practical examples of what works and what is feasible in developing country contexts would be highly valuable.

DFID should also seek to better disseminate its guidance on capacity building; there may be a role of the CSA here. Finally, we would suggest that it is important that the CSA interacts closely with the DFID Head of Research; such appointments should not be seconded positions, which may potentially impede activities due to conflict of interest concerns, to ensure that post-holders can fully participate in DFID procedures.

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

We feel that DFID’s coordination with trusts and endowment organisations seems to be successful and that this should be continued.

We emphasise that DFID has a respected and helpful role in advocating independent views and in demonstrating leadership on particular issues (such as family planning and safe abortion) and it is important that DFID continues this role.

We would suggest that it would be useful for DFID to work with NGOs to promote scientific good practice in NGO research and in particular to ensure that research results are published in peer-reviewed journals whenever possible to ensure a rigorous evidence chain that can in turn inform future research. 

UCL Institute for Global Health

December 2011


Prepared 22nd December 2011