Developing African novice researchers into career investigators: innovative options.

Author:Tumwijukye, Henry
 
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Background and Objectives

Global research indicators show that Sub-Saharan Africa fares poorly in research compared to other regions and has the least number of researchers per million inhabitants. It also produces the lowest number of research scholarly publications and makes the least investment in research and development (Mohamedbhai, 2011). This has been further aggravated by the increasing exodus of human capital from academic and research sectors in Africa, which adds to the continent's decreasing contribution to global scientific output, as well as the widening gap in science and technology between Africa and the rest of the world (Tebeje, n.d).

Many African investigators struggle to establish independent research careers. This is often related to the lack of a clear research pathway, as well as inadequate capacity support to define their research agendas and to develop professionally after they have completed their formal education (Johanson & Adams, 2004; Sawyerr, 2004). Given that significant numbers of the most experienced staff" are due to retire--the "greying of the professoriate"--and that insufficient numbers of new staff are being trained, there is a substantial gap in the numbers of current midlevel researchers able to develop independent careers. The need to develop capacity among early career scientists and researchers to fill the gaps left by retiring experienced scientists has been identified as essential to sustain the future of the research activities (Harris, 2004).

Capacity building has been identified as the 'missing link' (Jaycox, 1993) or 'a necessary precondition for the success of major socioeconomic development strategies' (Moharir, 1994), and 'critical to the development of many African institutions and development programs' (OED, 2005). Various approaches have been tried too increase the capacity of research in the region. In some instances, to increase the quantity and quality of the research portfolio, the research institutions have devised long-term higher education trainings, such as master or doctoral programs. Producing a viable number of trained researchers has been found to be extremely difficult via these types of programs, given the high costs of education, high dropout rates and the slow time-to-completion rates in low- resource settings. For example, in 2007, across the region, the University of Botswana produced four Ph.D.s, the universities of Dares Salaam and Ghana combined had 20, Makerere University had 23 and the University of Nairobi had the highest of the five with 32 doctoral graduates (Cloete, Bailey, & Maassen, 2011). The gap seems very wide compared with the US academic institutions, which awarded 48,802 research doctorate degrees in 2008 (Fiegener, 2009).

Most often, local Ugandan researchers who have received long-term training find themselves unable to succeed at their local institutions. This may be because whether gained at home or abroad, many of these formal long-term trainings offer less practical skills that can be transferred and applied in their settings. Indeed, several of the IEARDA trainees who had earlier attended long-term trainings in the USA or Europe speak of being unable to apply some of their acquired knowledge due to different challenges. For example, the lack of access to the journals they need, the lack of appropriate software to analyze their data, the lack of equipment to run new experiments or slow and unreliable internet connections, all contribute to their inability to reach their goals. Mentorship, career advice, on-going support, short-term trainings and orientations are critical to help the upcoming scientists adapt to new changes with the limited resources, limited networks, and poorly endowed research environments which often characterize their final job placements upon their return to Africa from long-term trainings in institutions from developed countries (Tettey, 2010).

Conventional strategies used in the past seem insufficient to deal with capacity challenges in international development (Cracknell, 2000). According to The Nairobi Report, published jointly by the British Academy and the Association of Commonwealth Universities (Harle, 2007), the key areas of support recommended for institutions to enhance early career research include regular meetings; networks and access to funding sources, especially to gain seed funds for their early career research projects; an emphasis on publications; concept and research development; and access to supervision, coaching and mentorship as well as institutional support, will and commitment. This is backed by the nine key support requirements for strengthening health research capacity in Africa as identified by the African-led group, the Initiative to Strengthen Health Research Capacity in Africa (ISHReCA). ISHReCA's requirements can be summed up under three major themes: improve the research environment, support individuals, and support institutions. Appropriately addressing these areas requires a fine combination of long--and short--term research capacity development trainings.

Current interest in capacity development is based on the realization that development efforts cannot deliver sustainable results without institutions and professionals adequately prepared to meet technical responsibilities (Eade, 1997; Milen, 2001). Investing resources into programs that lack well-trained personnel is unlikely to deliver successful, long-term results, particularly given the redefinition of job responsibilities (Homedes & Ugalde, 2005). Many development efforts have failed because insufficient attention and funding had been devoted to strengthening human and institutional capacity (Dobie, 2005; Hawe, Noort, King, & Jordens, 1997; Kwapong & Lesser, 1990). Building and sustaining capacity requires organizational capacity as well as the expertise of individuals (Grisso, Christakis, & Berlin, 1995; Kwapong & Lesser, 1990). For organizations to reap the benefits of what may be considerable investments in the training, the processes of how trainees are selected, trained and provided with opportunities to utilize their newly acquired skills and knowledge is crucial (Godlee, 1995).

This article aims to share strategies developed through a five-year International Extramural Associates Research Development Awards (IEARDA) awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the Eunice Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to the Makerere University- Johns Hopkins University Research Collaboration (MU-JHU). The IEARDA grant was designed as a collaborative project with four other research institutions: the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI); the Joint Clinical Research Centre (JCRC); the Makerere University-Case Western Reserve University Collaboration (MU-CWRU); and the Grants office for the Makerere University College of Health Sciences (MakCHS). The overall goal of this seed grant was to introduce universities and research institutions in resource-limited countries to the grant application processes at NIH so they could successfully identify, apply, and manage NIH awards. A selection of innovative, short-term, institutional and individual specific low- cost capacity building activities and sessions were conducted to achieve the objectives of this grant.

As a result of the implementation of the strategies, the number of early career investigators at MU-JHU with awarded grants rose from four to 16 within four years. This article describes the impact of well-designed, need-based short-term training courses with a hands-on approach and the critical role of supportive, skilled research grant administrators in nurturing early career investigators. A detailed description of the administrative organization and training strategy will be provided in forthcoming articles.

Strategy

Makerere University--Johns Hopkins University Research Collaboration is one of the key affiliates of the Makerere University College of Health Sciences (MakCHS). The collaboration between clinical researchers at Makerere University and Investigators currently at Johns Hopkins University has been in operation since 1988, conducting biomedical research focused on the prevention of pediatric HIV/AIDS. Prior to 2007, a specific strategy of "long-term" training had been utilized through the NIH for early career Investigators through training programs such as Fogarty International Training, mainly leading to master's degrees and very few PhDs. The focus of these degrees tended to be more on scientific growth and field specialization with less emphasis on grant management and administration. However, the strategy was not very successful in enhancing research management capacity or raising the abilities of local investigators to apply for extramural grant awards. Indeed, MU-JHU had neither a single directly awarded grant nor a single local Principal Investigator (PI) with a directly awarded grant until 2007, despite its existence as a research institution for over 19 years.

This five-year seed grant was designed to strengthen an existing research administrative infrastructure for the purpose of enhancing and supporting biomedical and behavioral research capacity and activities. This was the first time that an institution outside of the United States was awarded this type of NIH grant, and it was the first award to MU-JHU as an independent, nonprofit, and locally registered foreign entity able to directly apply for grants.

The IEARDA grant was designed to...

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