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  • Donors must fund the essential conditions for research

Donors should fund the facilities needed to improve the conditions for research, as well as funding individual studies, says Berit Olsson.

If we are serious about improving research capacity in low-income countries, then we need to support and foster the conditions that let it grow. Sustainable research is best built on a broad foundation of core disciplines and facilities. And a vibrant research community not only produces research, but also communicates 'the world of scientific findings' to decision-makers, students and others who might use them.

But most research funding in developing countries goes to commissioned studies in specific areas, prioritised for their potential to promote development — governments and external funding agencies are anxious to get immediately useful results.

Core funding supports capacity

In developed countries like Sweden, institutions receive 'core funding', combined with competitive grants based on scientific excellence. This fosters a creative research community. On top of this, ministries or other 'users' in public and private sectors target grants at priority research areas.

Sweden also benefits from substantive industry research, which in turn relies on the quality of public institutions. What industry particularly appreciates is research that explores new frontiers of knowledge. If government core funding were to fail, industry would place its research investments abroad.

Compare that to the demand-driven research favoured by low-income countries and development agencies. This tends to engage researchers from developed countries that already have the research capacity needed. A principal investigator in the North usually gets the grant and may — or may not — choose to collaborate with individual researchers in the South, who are closer to local realities and data.

Is this an efficient use of scarce resources? Possibly, if the desired outcome is short-term results that can feed directly into development projects.

Capacity building

But what about building capacity, often also recognised as an important objective? The outcomes in low-income countries depend entirely on the existing institutional capacity and conditions for research. If these are sufficiently strong, both the collaborating researcher and his/her institution may benefit from new contacts and perspectives. But in most low-income countries, where institutions and research settings are undeveloped, the project will have negligible effect on capacity building, or may even hinder it.

For example, it is often the few best-established and most important lecturers that collaborate on externally funded research projects. As there are few research funding opportunities, these researchers are tempted to accept projects outside their main priority areas. And as the income from such projects often far exceeds researchers' regular salaries, they spend more time and effort on them, often at the expense of teaching or engaging with their own faculty.

By contrast, directing support at institutions, through funds for facilities and training opportunities in line with institutional plans, the research community as a whole, rather than a single individual, would benefit.

The Swedish model

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) recognises the need to invest in at least one research-based university in each partner country. It funds core facilities needed to improve conditions for research, including laboratories, libraries and information and communication technology infrastructure, as well as research training for academic staff.

In Uganda, for example, Sida supports Makerere University's efforts to improve research training capacity, access vital equipment and software, modernise infrastructure and improve research administration. The partnership is based on a long-term funding commitment spanning 20–30 years (See 'Makerere University: Rebuilding a reputation').

Sweden has integrated support for research into its bilateral country cooperation strategies and has research advisors in its country teams. The research funding is planned in line with local university strategies for research development. And, more recently, a few countries are promoting national strategies as a framework for funding. For example, Mozambique's new Ministry for Science and Technology has developed a strategy to grow its science sector.

More governments and institutions in low-income countries need to begin formulating such strategies, so that external agencies can align their research funding with national plans and objectives.

Donors take note…

Disappointingly, other funding agencies have yet to support such broad strategies for research development.

Donor agencies must understand the need for (and invest in) a proper basis for research development. Different kinds of funding, similar to the Swedish model, are needed to build capacity.

A research community not only produces new scientific knowledge, but also communicates important international findings and innovations to policymakers and the public. Such information is vital, not least for designing local development strategies and assessing how aid contributes to these.

If donor agencies genuinely want to recognise 'ownership' in the development dialogue, then funding institutional research capacity should be an essential ingredient of bilateral development cooperation.

Berit Olsson is former director of the Department for Research Cooperation, at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.