Health researchers agree to reform North–South collaborations

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[BERLIN] Efforts to boost the roles of Southern scientists participating in neglected disease research collaborations moved forward this week with the development of a framework outlining how each partner should be treated.

The framework declares as its starting point that developing country scientists should have an equal role to those of developed countries in any such research partnership.

The goals were drawn up at a meeting in Berlin of researchers, research-funders, donors, international development agencies and ministerial representatives (16–18 March).

Some scientists have complained for decades that North-South collaborations are often deeply unequal — and that in the worst cases the Southerners are required to participate in name only, in order to satisfy funding requirements.

Mamadou Traore, senior lecturer at Mali’s Department of Public Health Training and Research, told the meeting that in the past European researchers had simply sent him application forms to sign to become a ‘partner’ in a research project.

"Steadily these practices have been grossly reduced," he said. But it remains the norm for there to be no monitoring or evaluation of partnerships, he added.

"And in terms of dissemination of results of studies you just see somewhere that it has been published without even quoting your name."

The new framework urges parties to "work towards excellence, ethics and equity in partnerships for research".

Partnerships should have a shared ownership, vision and plan; be equitable in all stages and aspects of work and adhere to principles of mutual respect and trust, says the framework. Each actor in the process — government, researcher, funder and donor — is given their own set of principles to follow.

Governments, for example, must take the initiative in setting their own research agendas; researchers should ensure that partnerships respond to these needs and those of donors; and funders should provide support for such agenda-setting, as well as supporting the process of developing and planning partnerships.

Efforts should also be made to develop the capacity of developing country partners to fulfil an equal role particularly in data management and analysis, translating research into policy, and the writing of proposals. Funders and donors should also provide long-term, core funding to provide a stable base for research.

Many developing country delegates welcomed the framework.

"I’m very positive about it and I’m ready to go," said Shakila Zaman, director of the Health Services Academy of the Ministry of Health in Pakistan. "I can take this framework and translate it into policy for academics to follow in their research, develop their partnerships and respect each other."

And Robert Ridley, director of the WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR), which, with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, co-sponsored the meeting, said: "I think we’ve moved on now so that we’re talking about partnerships where developing countries can come in and take a lead so that you’re not doing research for but with and by developing countries".

But others called for firmer plans.

"Let’s have a real commitment from TDR and the partners to really think about what the metrics are that we can use to track this over the next two years," said Val Snewin, international activities manager at The Wellcome Trust.

The finalised framework, along with background materials and opportunities to comment, will be available on a meeting site hosted by TropIKA after 25 March.