Report slams inequalities in research partnerships

African Researcher_Sven Torfinn_Panos
Copyright: Sven Torfinn/Panos

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  • Three of the proposed SDGs, such as one on inequality, are ‘goals for the rich’
  • But to meet them, richer nations must reform their link-ups with poorer nations
  • Improved accountability and a fairer say in decisions would help

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Partners from rich countries must step up their contribution to capacity building, fairness and accountability in research partnerships with developing nations or risk undermining efforts to meet three of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), says a report.
The report, released by a German political foundation last month, highlights the risks that poorly managed partnerships pose to development. These include the private sector’s growing influence over research agendas and a lack of accountability for partners’ promises and actions.
Overall, research partnerships with the developing world remain far too one-sided, according to the study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Unless this changes, says Bruce Campbell, director of climate change, agriculture and food security research at international agricultural science consortium CGIAR, question marks will remain over whether such collaborations can spearhead development under the SDGs.
“Currently, having to deal with developed country people is painful,” he tells SciDev.Net. “The power balance in research is not very good.”
One way to address this imbalance is to prioritise capacity-building in research projects with poor countries, says Campbell. Without the proper skills, developing world researchers too often play a peripheral role in such partnerships and cannot make the best use of any knowledge created, he warns.
Scientists from poorer countries must be given greater ownership of projects, the report found. It lists three specific “goals for the rich” among the SDGs: reducing inequality (Goal 10), ensuring sustainable consumption (Goal 12) and strengthening international partnerships for development (Goal 17).

“Currently, having to deal with developed country people is painful. The power balance in research is not very good.”

Bruce Campbell, CGIAR

But these goals will only work if their associated targets are enforced and used to reform how rich countries embark on collaborations with poorer nations, the report warns.
Andrew Cherry, coordinator of the Science, Technology and Innovation Cooperation between Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe (CAAST-Net) project, says research partnerships are often funded entirely by Northern institutions or companies, which limits poorer partners’ ability to set the agenda. For example, almost all the major decisions made within his network come from the European side, the same side most of the money comes from, he says.
Therefore Cherry believes it is essential to devise a financing mechanism that allows developing nation governments to compete for research funds on an even footing and gives them a fair share of any intellectual property created.
While this approach places the responsibility to create the right environment for partnerships on individual nations, Felix Dodds, a fellow from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Global Research Institute in the United States, believes an even more top-down approach is needed. He wants the UN to be able to reprimand rich partner organisations that violate rules around access and use of scientific material and knowledge.
In a paper presented to meetings of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the African Union, Dodds says that research partnerships between rich and poor countries should set out clear governance structures and be fully transparent about funding, decision-making and monitoring before getting the UN’s blessing.