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Unequal research management stymies equitable partnerships


Arma 2021: International partners from the global south can lack research administration capacity and knowledge

Partnerships between research institutions in the global north and south are often unequal when it comes to research administration, the 2021 conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators has heard.

This is despite major schemes that fund international collaborations for work on sustainable development goals, such as the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, putting a strong emphasis on equity between partners and building research capacity in the global south.

“There’s a lot of acknowledgement that partnerships need to be equitable, but there’s not much information out there about how these are realised,” Louise Heery, head of global research development at the University of Leeds, told a session on 7 October.

Sithembile Mwamakamba, from the South Africa-based Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, which has partnered with the University of Leeds on GCRF-funded projects, said that UK or European partners tend to enter collaborations already knowing more about funding infrastructures.

Partners from the global south, however, “don’t have the inside information, don’t know the right players, and don’t have the capacity to actually move in those spaces”, Mwamakamba added, “so, already, the issue of equity from the get-go becomes a challenge”.

Management left to academics

As well as institutional knowledge, partners in the global south often don’t have the research administration capacity of their northern counterparts.

Helen Coskeran, who manages one of the University of Leeds’ GCRF programmes, carried out a survey of project managers on major international collaborations, published in May 2021. The survey found that when institutions didn’t have dedicated research support staff, academics were left to manage finance and administration, sometimes with little or no training.

“A big downside of this was that overseas partners would often look to UK counterparts for guidance and instructions, which was unsettling for the equitable partnerships angle,” Coskeran said.

Project managers also reported that “very high and stringent demands in terms of finance and due diligence were a great burden for overseas partners”, Coskeran added.

When collaborations specifically included capacity building for project and research support staff, this was considered highly beneficial, said Coskeran, and this approach worked best when two-way exchange visits were arranged.

“It’s not [just] about focusing on the experts or the researchers that are supposed to be driving the work; it’s also [about] focusing on the support system behind those researchers,” said Mwamakamba.

Research Professional News is the official media partner for Arma 2021.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight