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Researchers ‘must recognise north-south power imbalance’

RPN Live: Research manager warns worst traits in north-south partnerships are “often the most subtle”

Researchers in the global north should do more to address “subtle” power imbalances with their partners in the global south, a leading research manager has said at a Research Professional News Live webinar.

Lorna Wilson, director of research development and operations at Durham University and chair-elect of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, said there was a “really significant power imbalance” between the global north and south, and that the “recognition of power in research is really important”.

Often, this power dynamic is due to the disparity in income between the countries involved, leading to negative behaviours among global north academics, she explained during the event on global funding trends and international collaboration on 14 June.

Negative traits in these partnerships are “often the most subtle”, Wilson warned, including failing to involve partners in low- and middle-income countries in early decision-making.

“Propositions are taken [by global north academics] to their partners in the global south to say: ‘This is what we’d like to do—we thought you might fit in here,’ or, ‘What could you do with this?’ That is not an equitable partnership.”

‘Hoarding resources’

Another issue is global north research teams “hoarding the resource and keeping the bulk of it” for themselves, she added.

Wilson described the situation as “really disappointing because there are little things that partners in the global north can do that really make a difference”, such as “having as early a discussion as possible with partners in the global south”.

This then “allows you to act more equitably” in terms of what your research objectives are, who will be leading on certain elements of the project, and what the co-authorship strategy will be.

Inequitable partnerships between the global north and south have been a long-standing concern for the R&D sector, particularly in international collaboration schemes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund.

The funds were phased out last year after the government slashed its aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GNI in 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to numerous partnerships with low- and middle-income countries being shut down.

Later that year, the government said it would create a new International Science Partnerships Fund, with the first calls launched in 2023.

Wilson said the GCRF fund, in particular, had driven bad behaviours among global north researchers.

“A huge amount of money was there, so everybody started chasing it; and a huge amount of researchers that had never worked in global south partnerships before all of a sudden were knocking on doors to say: ‘I need my data collected.’ That’s not an equitable partnership.”

She urged researchers to lobby funders about the issue and to “take responsibility for ensuring that teams are [equitable]”.

Wilson also called on global south researchers to take up the opportunity to become more involved in peer review and funding assessment for funders in the global north to help tackle the problem.

Building international networks

Also participating in the event, Adam Golberg, research development manager at the University of Nottingham, spoke more broadly about international collaboration.

On the topic of building international networks, he said it was important for researchers to think early on about what their institution has to offer and what they can provide partners that they might need.

“In some countries, that might be expertise, facilities, equipment. For… low- and middle-income countries, it might be really valuable connections to civil society, to the public sector, government, as well as the opportunity to develop research culture and research-strengthening capability.”

Meanwhile, when putting together international bids, he urged researchers to get in touch with their administrative and research development teams “as early as you possibly can because the challenge you have with any international bids is dealing with two different systems of research funding which may not be compatible”.

He added: “It’s a bit like being able to explain the rules of Aussie Rules football. Whatever it is, you need to be able to find someone in your team who can explain that to your opposite number, and the sooner those people start talking to each other, the easier the process gets.”

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe