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  • North-South collaboration helps researchers stay at home

[BERN, SWITZERLAND] Engagement in North-South research partnerships can benefit the career prospects of a developing country scientist, according to a survey of the alumni of a major Swiss-funded research programme.

An analysis of 44 alumni — from Africa, Asia and Latin America — of a Swiss-funded North-South research programme showed that more than 90 per cent of them stayed in developing countries after attaining their PhD, and were mostly working in academia.  

The report also found that women from poorer backgrounds were less likely than men to start PhD research, but, once they had obtained doctorates, experienced the same career boost as men.

The report, 'Tracking Alumni Career Paths', was presented at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, this week (20–22 August). It looked at PhD alumni of the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South Programme, which is hosted by the University of Bern. The NCCR programme has trained 112 PhD students over the past 12 years, in areas including health, natural resources and poverty, with the aim of contributing to sustainable development and capacity building.

The report shows that over 60 per cent of the programme's former students from the global South improved their jobs and salaries after attaining their PhDs, indicating a strong demand for skilled researchers in the South.  

Almost two-thirds of the PhD students came from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

People with this type of background are more likely to understand development challenges on the ground, the report says, and hence conduct research that benefits the poor and incorporates their perspective.

Claudia Michel, a researcher at NCCR and one of the report's authors, told SciDev.Net that the findings appeared to conflict with a widely held belief that North-South partnerships can lead to a brain drain, and favour students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The survey data dispels these myths, she said.

"If a research system is well-coordinated, well-managed and well-funded, the chances are that master's or PhD graduates will stay at home [to enjoy these benefits]," Francisco Becerra, head of projects and programmes at the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) told SciDev.Net.

The factors causing NCCR's high student retention levels should be identified and replicated at other programmes, he said.

Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh, a Kenyan PhD student on the NCCR North-South programme, told SciDev.Net that most southern researchers want to remain in their home country because of their families and a desire to boost a country's development.

Ogalleh added that the NCCR programme has helped students remain at home through capacity building and linking them with networks and partnerships that continue even after a student leaves the programme.

Although the programme has trained PhD students for careers in both the research and development sectors, most students end up pursuing university-based research careers, rather than entering the development sector. However, over 65 per cent of students from the South said that their scientific results, tools or recommendations had been taken up by non-academic partners, particularly national governments.