How to embed and sustain project-initiated improvements in research capacity: good practice recommendations

Lead Research Organisation: Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
Department Name: International Public Health


The UK government is committed to helping developing countries create their own solutions to the challenges they face rather than trying to adopt potentially inappropriate solutions from elsewhere. If developing countries are able to conduct high-quality research, they will be able to develop evidence-informed policy and practice, improve human capital and produce pro-poor products/technologies, all of which will accelerate social and economic development. Stronger research skills, systems, infrastructure and governance (i.e. research capacity) in developing countries will also benefit the UK national interest since poverty, migration, and epidemics, while concentrated in developing countries, impact globally. The UK is a world leader in supporting developing countries to strengthen their capacity for research and innovation. In recent years international development donors and governments have strengthened their spending on research capacity strengthening which has now become a cornerstone of international development assistance. Nevertheless, Africa in particular, lags far behind in global research capacity - in 1999-2008 African nations produced 27,000 papers/year, about the same number as The Netherlands. The £1.5Bn GCRF supports collaborative, large-scale projects between UK and developing country institutions. Many of these projects directly or indirectly contribute to strengthening research capacity in their partner institutions in developing countries by, for example, introducing research skills courses, purchasing equipment and facilitating networks. However, much of this effort is wasted because these capacity improvements are not institutionalised or sustained in the long-term. This is because the institutionalisation of changes was not the main purpose of the project and sustainability can take decades to achieve.
In phase 1 we will identify strategies that have been used by GCRF and other UK-funded projects covering different research disciplines. We will collect data, initially through a survey, about what gains in research capacity were initiated by these projects and if, and how, these have been institutionalised, financed and sustained. Through our cluster members we will access information from around 100 of these projects' partner institutions in at least 20 African countries, including many of the poorest countries. This will provide information about what changes in research capacity have been initiated. To find out why and how these changes happened, why some succeeded and others did not, and to understand how the different contexts may influence uptake, financing and sustainability, we will undertake in-depth interviews with a range of key researchers, research managers, development funders and senior university officials in Africa and the UK. We will verify our findings by scrutinising the projects' annual reports and evaluations. All this information will be collated using a well-established framework that incorporates all the components that an institution needs to have in place to achieve world-class research capacity. From this information we will produce baseline data about research capacity strengthening changes that have been initiated through projects and which are common and independent of the research discipline. These will be accompanied by lessons and experiences about how and why these changes have or have not been institutionalised or sustained. We will develop draft guidelines about strategies that can promote uptake and durability of project-initiated improvements in research capacity, including how to promote equity in research opportunities and careers, to be tested during a subsequent project.
The members of our cluster comprise researchers, research managers, grant-making agencies, an NGO and an African research 'think tank' with extensive convening power. The project will be led by the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Planned Impact

Potential impact
The goal of our research is that developing countries should achieve self-sufficiency in their capacity to generate research and innovation. Reducing reliance on knowledge from elsewhere means that they will be better able to address their own problems. The long-term impact of our project will therefore be better ability of developing countries to generate scientific and technological knowledge and to translate this knowledge into new products or processes. By solving their own national problems they will accelerate their progress towards economic growth and development. Our focus is on the least developed countries, primarily in Africa, since they have the furthest to go in terms of achieving research self-sufficiency.

We will to contribute to this impact by finding out what the critical gaps in research capacity are that collaborative projects are trying to address and which of these gaps would be the most impactful to focus on because they are not related to any particular discipline. We will then investigate how the project-initiated changes can be institutionalised and sustained beyond the lifespan of the project and produce recommendations and guidelines about how to do this more effectively in future.

Beneficiaries of the research
Primary beneficiaries
The primary and earliest beneficiaries of our research will be UK and developing country senior researchers and research managers who are responsible for designing and implementing research projects. These groups will be able to incorporate our recommendations into existing and new projects to increase the chances of sustaining new research capacity that they have initiated through their projects.
Additional primary beneficiaries will be the funders and grant makers of development projects since they will be able to commission research applications that focus on promoting the uptake and sustainability of new research capacity that has been initiated through projects, and they can provide applicants with our evidence-based recommendations about how to do this most effectively. If funders ensure that these projects align with their overall pathway to impact and collating the information in annual projects reports, they will be able to clearly demonstrate to their boards and governments that they are making progress in achieving their nation's development aid goals.

Secondary beneficiaries
Developing country programmes and institutions will be able to use our systematic approaches and tools to self-identify blockages in sustainably embedding project-initiated improvements in their own systems and structures. The results of these self-assessments can form the basis for strong justification to their own governments and to external funders, about the need to target specific areas of research capacity.
Better capacitated research institutions in developing countries will benefit the UK research community because they will be attractive partners for collaborative projects and will provide exciting and motivating opportunities for novel research on global priorities that are not widely available in the UK.
Populations in the developing countries will eventually benefit from improved research and new knowledge generated through their country's strengthened research systems through more evidence-based policies and through new and appropriate technologies and products.


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Description We completed a structured literature review titled 'How to embed and sustain project-initiated improvements in research capacity: a review of the published literature'. We are currently preparing this literature review for publication in an open-access, peer-reviewed academic journal. The literature review presents a synthesis of recommendations made for sustaining research capacity strengthening initiatives from across the published literature as well as an assessment of the quality of evidence upon which these recommendations were made. The review identified a total of 29 recommendations across seven broad domains. These recommendations represent current state of the knowledge and may usefully inform sustainability planning in future research capacity strengthening initiatives.
Exploitation Route The literature review findings, once published, will inform sustainability planning for anyone developing a research capacity strengthening initiative for implementation within a low-and middle-income country context.
Sectors Other