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Inorms 2023: Make funding for research support more strategic

Image: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

African research management needs long-term, bottom-up support from international funders, says John Kirkland

As African universities develop global research profiles, international funders become more interested in their research management systems. This week, Durban in South Africa hosts the conference of the International Network of Research Management Societies—the premier global meeting for university research managers. The number of African delegates present will show how capacity on the continent is growing.

So it’s a good time for international funders to take stock. Have their initiatives to develop research management in African universities helped? What lessons can funders learn? What form should future support take?

Supporting research

There have been numerous attempts to support the development of African research management, but most have been uncoordinated, time-limited and project-based. Few funders have evaluated post-project impact or maintained contact with participants. 

Even so, some trends can be identified. One is that most funders have pursued a top-down model of change. This has encouraged institutions to put new structures in place and helped train staff to work in them. 

Programmes have often sought to identify senior-level champions within target institutions to help drive their agenda. This endorsement has been important, since many African universities are hierarchical in nature and research management has to compete for resources with other issues on their agenda.

So there has been impact, but it has been gradual and cumulative rather than attributable to any single project. Design of individual projects has sometimes been overoptimistic about both the timescale for change and an institution’s ability to impose rules on senior academics. Senior-level champions, although important in setting agendas, are themselves often overburdened. 

Support has also focused on larger, more research-intensive institutions. Such universities are in more obvious need of research management, and investment there is seen as safer. This has caused duplication and an excessive focus on established research universities at the expense of emerging institutions. 

Some funders have been reluctant to align their practice with their principles. For example, the Essence group of health research funders emphasises the importance of commissioning African research on a full-cost basis. Yet individually, many calculate such costs at a much lower level for African institutions compared with those in high-income countries. 

Some funders’ approaches also reflect richer countries’ experience of developing research management. In universities in richer countries, growing capacity was partly defensive, designed to regulate established research activity and protect the institution against unauthorised commitments, badly negotiated contracts and intellectual property leakage. Those needs exist in Africa, too, but African definitions of research management are broader, embracing the development of staff, doctoral students and research infrastructure.

Robust systems

As the volume of research in African universities increases, so too will the need for robust research management systems. So how can international funders better contribute? I would suggest five principles.

First, funding bodies should see research management as a long-term, strategic investment, rather than a collection of individual projects, and commit support accordingly. Second, they should use forums such as Essence and the Science for Africa Foundation to collaborate, reducing duplication. Third, a strategic approach should involve a wider range of institutions, extending support beyond elite universities. 

Fourth, the top-down approach of convincing an institution of the need for research management and supporting it to develop structures should become less prominent. As international collaboration increases, much will be gained from day-to-day contact between individuals who manage projects and report needs back to their institutions. 

Finally, international funders, and the northern universities to whom they sometimes delegate the terms for collaboration, should consider how their own procedures can better recognise African research managers. For some, this will be an uncomfortable process that highlights the tension between seeking the best possible contractual terms and a wider vision for equitable relationships

Yet the effort will be worthwhile. An African research management profession, qualified and empowered to negotiate the best possible terms for African institutions, is critical to the future of research on the continent. 

Research Professional News is media partner for Inorms 2023.

John Kirkland is chair of the charity Diversity in Development. He advises several projects on African research management, and was formerly deputy secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight