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Standing up to development agencies

Image: Andrew Silver for Research Professional News

Inorms 2023: The idea that international agencies should consider national priorities remains controversial

International development agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and international funders such as the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust, provide much-needed funds for scientific research to low- and middle-income countries.

Their value should not be underestimated. USAID’s Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research programme, for example, has awarded more than US$100 million to more than 400 projects in 57 countries. The researchers it funds have contributed to more than 1,000 journal articles, with 90 peer-reviewed articles in 2022, according to a programme fact sheet.

One USAID project involving teams across East Africa documented the DNA of endangered wildlife, which is used by law-enforcement agencies to prosecute traffickers. Another involving researchers in Colombia and the US used remote sensing to develop models to predict forest responses to fires, applicable for policymaking.

The need for such resources from agencies and funders can make criticism of them difficult for beneficiaries. But that criticism is starting to be heard, and this was the case during a 31 May panel-discussion session of the International Network of Research Management Societies annual conference in Durban, South Africa, especially during a session on the opening day, titled “How can international funding agencies best support African research management?”

Matching priorities

That development agencies will have their own funding goals and priorities when allocating research grants is hard to deny. Should they also consider and operate according to the national priorities of the countries they operate in when offering financial support? One senior official at South Africa’s basic-research funder thought so, and his opinion was clearly controversial.

“Lots of funding goes to different constitutions, whether universities [or] academies, and in most instances, this funding is not aligned to national priorities,” said Sepo Hachigonta, director of strategic partnerships at the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRF). It was “critical to start looking at how we streamline some of these processes”, he added.

Hachigonta said a better situation than the one in existence “might not necessarily be centralised”, but there should be in place a “sharing of information, and engaging within the national system to ensure that all the pieces are connected and they are contributing to that area agenda, national, regional or whatever you might link it to”.

He added that agencies should “look at how they can partner with parties in the global south, whether that’s private sector, whether it’s public, or other entities in the global south to design and fund the national agendas. I think that’s very critical for sustainability, as well as to make that needed impact.”

Hachigonta also called on agencies to reduce instances of funding duplication to maximise impact in countries, and to support more than just scientific research, such as IT or capacity-building. He said he wanted to point out what development agencies “should be playing as we go in[to] the future” for research management.

Audience feedback

His remarks drew critical replies from some in the audience, which tended to focus on the need for agencies’ investment. Research Professional News previously reported that to fund all research grants that qualify for its support, NRF requires an additional 1 billion rand (US$54.6m). For postgraduate bursary applications, it can only fund 35 per cent of those eligible.

“Looking at the South African climate as it is, we are very desperate for money,” said one audience member from the University of Pretoria, pointing to student-debt figures and asking “can we really afford to be picky when you’re in this dilemma that we are currently facing, and how best do we go about [priority alignment], because we need the money?”

But Hachigonta defended his position, arguing that “the amount of resources that [go into] the South African system is quite significant”. It is “not 100 per cent, of course, and you’ve seen the budgets reducing over the years”, but “the good thing is last week’s budget—we’ve seen a little increase in the budgets with regards to science and innovation”.

Under the 2023-24 budget, South Africa’s science and innovation department will receive R10.9bn rand—up from its R9.1bn allocation in 2022-23. Most of the increase is in the field of space science, in particular for the country’s Space Infrastructure Hub and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Thinking global

Hachigonta said there were also opportunities to exploit synergies and optimise funding, adding that the “majority of challenges” that research addresses are “global in nature”, including climate change and global health. There could be “inclusive partnerships” addressing those topics, he suggested.

But local issues remain important, and look likely to hobble research agencies in South Africa—and the global south more widely—in calling for greater consideration of national priorities. As Research Professional News previously reported, Koena Motloi, the agency’s director for industry and strategic engagement, told South African universities to partner more with industry to address the crises that the country faces, such as rolling blackouts from energy shortages.

NRF’s budget is expected to drop to R10.5bn in 2024-25 and R10.1bn in 2025-26, as funding for the SKA and the Space Infrastructure Hub declines. At the same time, universities in the country have faced rising costs from intensifying periods of rolling blackouts, which, along with inflation, also have wider effects on society.

Research Professional News is the media partner for the Inorms 2023 conference in Durban. Read all of the coverage here