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Tool targets fairness deficit in research
  • Tool targets fairness deficit in research

Copyright: Pan American Health Organization

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[Brussels] Partnership is an enduring buzzword in development. Just as enduring are efforts to put research institutions in developing countries on a level playing field when they pair up with counterparts in the developed world — on anything from being better able to negotiate contracts to controlling biological resources to having visibility on research papers.
In health research these efforts are now taking a step beyond lofty aspiration or scattered initiatives in the form of a Research Fairness Initiative (RFI): a voluntary reporting mechanism that’s gaining cautious but substantive support.
The RFI is being developed by the NGO Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) with backing from the CAAST-Net Plus Africa-Europe project and three pharmaceutical companies, plus in-kind support from the Wellcome Trust.
I came away from a discussion among RFI supporters in Brussels this week with a feeling that its success will hinge on a fine balancing act between ambition and focus.
The idea behind the RFI is to encourage institutions involved in collaborative research to get on a path to more even-handed partnerships by ‘strongly encouraging’ them to report the policies and practices they follow to ensure fairness — a process guided by 45 indicators. COHRED director Carrel IJsselmuiden describes it as a compliance tool and a learning platform.
The initiative has yet to reach pilot stage but progress has been made since last year, with institutions in three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — offering feedback on a guide to its reporting requirements.
This feedback along with other views were shared this week, and the conversation threw up existential and practical snags tied up with the proposition. Three stood out for me.
One is about reporting itself — whether it’s the best way to promote fairness in partnership. The RFI seems built on the assumption that it does. And there was support for this. Marieme Ba, founder of the Senegal-based consulting firm Pharmalys, argued that compliance works, and can also help institutions weaker in research capacity to up their game.
Others were more sceptical. Gonzalo Vicente from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health cautioned over enforcing guidelines — it’s more important to get people trusting, talking to and respecting each other, he said. The message was reinforced by others’ experiences on the value of open discussion.

I came away from a discussion among RFI supporters in Brussels this week with a feeling that its success will hinge on a fine balancing act between ambition and focus.

Anita Makri, SciDev.Net

On the practical side, the clearest message — conveyed by four delegates representing two funding bodies in the room — was on the need to sharpen RFI’s vision, test it and avoid adding to existing reporting requirements, potentially a daunting prospect for institutions in the SDG era.
The European Commission’s (EC) Nienke Buisman described the initiative as “very ambitious” and “heavy”. It needs to define success criteria, she said, and the testing phase is important: will people take the monitoring questions seriously or will this become a box-ticking exercise?
Yet her comments were followed by willingness to fund the project’s pilot phase — a mix of scepticism and support echoed by others from the Commission. Gianpietro van der Goor called for a vision and proof-of-concept phase, and Kevin McCarthy called for finding examples of good practice that could prove the RFI’s usefulness.
And so we come to the third message: what to prioritise and how to implement?
Going by the numerous capacity needs raised in the conversation, it seems the RFI carries a high burden of hope.
South Africa’s Glaudina Loots spoke of the need to fight “research colonialism” — funders demanding a one-way ticket for biological samples, for instance, or the country’s limited capacity to negotiate contracts. Negotiating capacity was also a priority for Kimani Gachuhi, from the Kenya Medical Research Institute. He and colleagues from Senegal and Nigeria added more needs to the list, such as better intellectual property (IP) rights policies, monitoring instruments, training and personnel.
IJsselmuiden suggested how the RFI could help in practice: by allowing developing country partners to hire a lawyer to negotiate an IP contract, for example, or promoting solid financial management practices to tackle donors’ concerns over investing directly in Africa.
How far the RFI goes to meet these needs will be a balancing act between ambition and focus. Whether it succeeds or not, there’s something else to be gained in the process, as Ba pointed out: a better understanding of what fairness is and how to promote fair research.
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