Seven ways to assist health research in developing nations

Petri dish health 2
Copyright: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Speed read

  • The best practice guide is designed to show how to strengthen research capacity
  • It covers areas such as leadership and long-term planning
  • But more robust evidence may be needed on what capacity building works

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A guide released yesterday details seven principles for good practice in strengthening research capacity in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC).

The document was put together by a partnership of funding agencies from around the world called ESSENCE on Health Research (Enhancing Support for Strengthening the Effectiveness of National Capacity Efforts).

“The majority of research funding in LMICs comes from outside and so funding agencies need to reflect upon how they can help to strengthen capacity,” says Garry Aslanyan, partnerships and governance manager at the WHO hosted Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases, an ESSENCE partner. He adds that LMICs often do not prioritise the strengthening of research capacity.

To produce the guide, ESSENCE sent questionnaires to its members and the WHO’s technical programmes asking about their work and experiences related to research capacity strengthening. A consultation was then held in Uganda in July 2013, which brought together researchers, funders and research leaders to provide input on draft guidelines that aimed to assemble best practice and knowledge in this area.

“The process of creating the document is just as important as the final product,” says Aslanyan.

The final set of seven principles is based on simple ideas that can be applied as widely as possible in different scenarios. They cover issues such as: leadership; local ownership; monitoring and evaluation; and long-term planning.

“It is an excellent initiative, as this joined-up approach by a group of important health research funders regarding underlying principles for health research capacity strengthening will help to focus efforts, and promote discussion and cooperation,” says Imelda Bates, the head of the International Public Health Department at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom.

Bates recently co-authored a research paper that came up with a five-step pathway for strengthening research capacity, whose principles, she says, are similar to those in the ESSENCE document.

Co-author, Alan Boyd, a research associate at Manchester Business School, United Kingdom, says: “It can be difficult for users to choose between guidelines for health research capacity strengthening, as the evidence base for their effectiveness is not extensive.”

Bates says more robust evidence is needed on what works in health research capacity strengthening and about which metrics to use to demonstrate the progress and impact of such initiatives.

Currently, recipients of research funding are expected to design, implement and measure health research capacity strengthening activities in parallel with their primary research project, explains Bates. “This is not likely to result in either effective, measurable research capacity strengthening or the generation of new transferable knowledge about how to do so better,” she says.

Boyd says: “Helping stakeholders to shape plans for health research capacity strengthening is important because such practices are variable and not always best suited to the circumstances at hand.”