In April as part of a long-established partnership between LIDC and the Southern African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance (SACIDS) I visited the town of Arusha, Tanzania, to deliver a training session on preparing successful research grant proposals.
SACIDS is one of the consortia funded by the Wellcome Trust’s African Institutions initiative, which aims to develop institutional capacity to support and conduct health-related research. One aspect of my job at LIDC has been to coordinate academic and training support to SACIDS from LSHTM and RVC in their role as ’Northern’ partners to the consortium.
So on a rainy Saturday morning I found myself in a hotel still in the throes of reconstruction talking about how to go about preparing convincing research proposals to extract cash from funding agencies. The lucky recipients of my training session were nine bright SACIDS postdocs, all aiming to be future research leaders, all based in East African Universities. They are working on a variety of infectious diseases relevant to both human and animal health, using an integrated ‘One Health’ approach. This means they study these diseases in a holistic way that includes ecosystems, socioeconomic, and cultural factors as well as the disease’s effects on health per se. I hope they found the session useful and enjoyable- feedback was good but maybe they were just polite (!). Then followed a session by Prof. Joe Brownlie from the Royal Veterinary College on the practicalities of mentoring – sharing experiences of being mentored and mentoring others.
Sharing is what the workshop came down to – forget the implications of language such as ‘delivering’ and ‘recipients’ – indicative of a one-way relationship! In fact what went on was much more about a mutual learning experience than anything else. And that’s the whole point about capacity strengthening. It’s a two-way street. Nowadays we ‘Northerners’ are realising that we must move away from neo-colonial attitudes to strengthening research capacity. In the past ‘Northern’ partners have often been exploiters rather than partners. It’s easy to fly into established research infrastructures or health systems that have been put in place by African organisations at great effort and/or cost, and fly out again with a haul of research data or samples. Rarely were equitable arrangements for sharing ownership of data and research results put in place from the start. Although this in now old-hat in capacity-strengthening circles, the reality on the ground changes more slowly than the prevailing winds of academia and funding agencies. How can we all – ‘South’ and ‘North’ for want of better terms – ensure that capacity to health-related research vital to enhancing people’s health, lives and livelihoods can be strengthened on a basis that is equitable and sustainable, but most importantly actually has tangible effects on fostering a research culture in African institutions. No matter what funding agencies may have in mind, this is a political task as much as a scientific one. Where are the jobs that will absorb the products of improved research training? Who will ensure that there is such a thing as a satisfying research career pathway in African institutions? It won’t be the funding agencies or NGOs, no matter how well-meaning, though their ideas can be valuable for African governments and science educators to embrace. It will be the African institutions and intelligentsia themselves who will make the difference, and all the help we can give them from our cosy ‘Northern’ institutions will not be wasted since a world with a stronger Africa is a stronger world.
To get back to the workshop – my session was preceded by a 2-day workshop on emotional intelligence and giving/receiving feedback, organised by a Dar-es-Salaam-based trainer. With some trepidation I joined the participants on the second afternoon, and it brought home to me all the skills which are needed these days outside of technical science skills to become a successful functioning and productive scientist in an African institution – or any institution come to think of it. I could use a few more of those skills too, and I probably benefited as much as any of the postdocs. But it made me think more widely about how useful the type of training casually referred to as ‘transferable skills’ is to building research capacity. In UK institutions, training courses for PhD students and postdocs are taken for granted nowadays – be they in writing scientific papers and grant proposals, finding funding, organising research collaborations, setting up databases, getting published etc. Such courses may be under appreciated outside of the training room itself by busy research scientists, but in reality the content is all part and parcel of the experience of being an academic, and what’s more, many of the skills are useful in everyday life as well as in the lab or office!
During the week following the workshop, SACIDS held its 2nd One Health Conference in Africa, organised jointly with the Tanzanian National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). The objectives of this event were to promote health research for sustainable socio-economic development in Africa; to share research findings with the key stakeholders and general public; to discuss and explore new health services and research priority areas; and to promote a One Health Agenda as a driver for health research. Under main theme of “The Changing Landscape for Health Research in Africa” the conference brought together medical and veterinary researchers from many parts of Africa and beyond. Prof. Mark Rweyemamu, SACIDS Director, described how, thanks to globalisation, the nature of future spread of infectious diseases whether of people or animals is increasingly explosive and global, examples being SARS, Avian and Pandemic influenzas. FAO, OIE, WHO and the African Union have concluded that future strategies for international disease control should focus more at controlling epidemics at source, in developing countries. This approach demands strengthening of local capacity in research and control of infectious diseases. Therefore, when SACIDS was formed in January 2008, it set about developing the capabilities of young African scientists and catalysing institutional change. It adopted a Virtual Centre concept through sharing of resources and expertise across institutions, across academia and research and across national boundaries, as well as developing ‘Smart’ Partnerships with centres of advanced research in industrialised and middle-income countries. The role of LIDC and our member Colleges has been to exchange expertise and experience for mutual benefit, and strengthen SACIDS operational capacity as well as our own involvement in it – a two-way street.
Contributed by Dr. Cathy Fletcher, who has recently retired after spending five years working as Programme Developer at LIDC.