Interdisciplinary approach key to tackling challenges

Botanical Gardens at Yamgambi Reseach Station
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[NAIROBI] Professionals with similar qualifications tend to work together but a new approach to addressing global challenges may break this tradition.

Listening to over 120 participants from 17 countries including Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe at the global engagement meeting in Kenya recently (29 January to 2 February) introduce themselves and highlight their research interests, I wondered why the main organiser — the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) of the Research Councils UK — put together such a diverse team.

But Michael Aaronson, chair of the GCRF strategic advisory group, in a welcoming speech, made me know why. “The main aim of this meeting is to discover new connections that we could put together to work in research for development,” he said.

Africa can no longer depend on the goodwill of donors, we should be the one driving innovations and partnerships.

Reuben Marwanga, Kenya National Innovation Authority

When participants were asked to form groups as case studies to address global challenges, the one I joined just highlighted the problems and opportunities of working together in an interdisciplinary team. For instance, while some participants with expertise in medicine argued for addressing cancer challenges, others with social science backgrounds made a case for those resulting from urbanisation. In the end, we focused on addressing population health challenges resulting from urbanisation.

According to Stuart Taberner, director of international and interdisciplinary research, Research Councils UK, the GCRF is £1.5 billion (about US$2 billion), five-year project funded by the UK government.

The initiative that began in 2016 aims to address global challenges through both disciplinary and interdisciplinary research. It is also designed to strengthen research innovation within developing countries and the United Kingdom, build capacity to address global problems guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and provide research solutions to emergencies.

“What we are hoping to achieve is to bring together people from developing countries with their United Kingdom counterparts to work together and forge new networks for research partnerships,” Taberner added.

A presentation that particularly made the aims of the GCRF come to life for me related to a project in South Africa that focused on informal settlements.

Claudia Loggia, a senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, who is a co-investigator on the project, explained: “The core of our project is building partnerships,” citing collaboration with local non-governmental organisations, local government institutions and UK researchers that is aiding transfer of skills from academic institutions to help communities build resilience.  

I was left with no doubt that the GCRF is an initiative that could help researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions build capacity to address challenges that require multidisciplinary approaches.

What convinced me was that the initiative relies on both developing country and UK experts in identifying problems and solutions from multidisciplinary partnerships. But it is important that Africa governments also fund such partnerships. One such scheme called Newton Fund highlighted at the meeting involves UK and governments in 18 countries including Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mexico, Philippines and South Africa co-funding projects.

As Reuben Marwanga, chair of the Kenya National Innovation Authority, noted, “Africa can no longer depend on the goodwill of donors. We should be the one driving innovations and partnerships.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.