Donors have begun an experiment in health research funding, with recipient countries handling their own development budgets for the first time.
Under the Health Research Capacity Strengthening initiative, the Canadian International Development Research Centre, the UK Department for International Development and the UK-based Wellcome Trust have teamed up to finance two new funding bodies in Kenya and Malawi.
The new Consortium for National Health Research (CNHR) in Kenya and the existing National Research Council of Malawi will each receive £10 million (US$14 million) over five years to implement nationally-determined strategies and fund health research aligned with what they perceive to be their national priorities.
They will disburse grants for research, training and infrastructure improvement, and strengthen the use of research in policymaking.
"This is probably the first initiative of its kind in the developing world … that is wholly driven by the scientists from the recipient country," says Glibert Kokwaro, director of the CNHR.
The move is in line with calls from the global health community to hand over health research decision-making to developing countries, says Jimmy Whitworth, head of international activities at the Wellcome Trust.
"There's a pressure and a rhetoric to do things more in that way. Some discussions have been along the lines of asking research funders to put money into a pot and the governments of developing countries will decide what the priorities are for research. I think we're still quite a long way from that but this is an experiment in that direction and if it works then there are plenty of other funders on the sidelines looking … to see if this is something they'd like to support in the future."
He adds that one of the problems with the usual way that the Wellcome Trust funds health research — through an application and peer review process with guidance from strategy committees — is that the process is "isolated from what might be seen as priorities in particular developing countries" and that this new method is "more harmonised" with national interests.
Kokwaro told SciDev.Net that in addition to research, training and infrastructure overhauls, his Kenya centre will also issue calls to establish centres for research excellence and sponsor school science congresses to raise the profile of science in secondary schools.
A knowledge repository will also be set up so that policymakers can monitor the research and its findings.
"I think these three funders have been brave in doing something which appears to be unorthodox but which really is the way to kick-start recipient country-driven relevant research on health," says Kokwaro. "I hope that other funders will join in supporting this initiative and make it a template for channelling development funds to Sub-Saharan Africa for research-related activities."
Whitworth is more wary. "It's an experiment, it's slightly risky, it's a learning experience for us all. We've worked closely with our counterparts in Kenya and Malawi and it's clear that they're going to do things rather differently than if we were running this from London. We have to accept that, that's part of capacity building; that we sit back and let them do it. We're going to have to wait and see how well it works."