Six key impacts from UK research capacity strengthening funding

Six key impacts from UK research capacity strengthening funding
14 October, 2021

Yaso Kunaratnam

The UK has invested £873 million directly in strengthening research capacity (RCS) in low- and middle -income countries over the last five years.  A UKCDR cross-funder review of RCS in LMICs, which I am leading, breaks down this significant investment, as well as £1.2 billion on embedded RCS, across six major UK funders.

The investments are diverse. Our first task has therefore been to understand a complex UK funding landscape. We have analysed 133 programmes and partnership activities for strengthening research capacity. It has been no mean feat; our team at UKCDR, UK funders and delivery partners have manually inputted and coded information from key programmes. With the added challenge of no existing RCS classification system available, we hope that we may have devised some typology for future mappings in this field. Check out the key findings from our landscape analysis here.

The next stage is to consider what we can learn from this experience.  We hope this will enable better coordination, evaluation of outcomes and impact of RCS programmes in the long-term and build a shared evidence base on what works. In 2022 we will be producing a learning output, and work is already underway to analyse findings from stakeholder interviews and plan for a learning workshop with UK and international stakeholders to build on these findings.

In the meantime, case study examples of impact and coherence were also developed by funders and programme partners to accompany the analysis. See ‘UK ODA and Wellcome-Funded Research Capacity Strengthening in LMICs: Case Studies’.

These demonstrate several ways in which RCS investments can have impact:

1. Strengthened research skills, careers, and environment 

Several UK programmes have helped to foster world-class LMIC researchers. The Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science in Africa (DELTAS) programme funded by Wellcome and FCDO, has trained 2,011 African research fellows across different career stages and built 88 research facilities leading to local researcher career development and excellent supportive environments for conducting research. CABANA Train the Trainer initiative (part of GCRF GROW funded by BEIS and UKRI) has also helped to transform scientists into effective and confident trainers for bioinformatics in Latin America.

2. Research and innovation productivity and economic impact

The Leaders in Innovation Fellowships (LIF) programme funded by BEIS and the Royal Academy of Engineering through the Newton Fund, has developed 1,100 fellows’ skills in entrepreneurship, innovation and commercialisation since 2014 in 17 partner countries. Over 2,500 jobs have been created by LIF participants’ companies and a total of $90 million in further investment, grants and funding has been raised by LIF participants in support of their innovations.

3. Rapid response capacity 

Long-term continued investment by Wellcome’s Africa and Asia Programmes in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam and MRC-funded Africa Research Units in Gambia and Uganda has developed world-leading research institutions and enabled the ability to pivot to support national responses such as to COVID-19 and global work on sequencing and data sharing and surveillance. One of our external advisors for the review, Sam Kinyanju, Head of Training and Capacity Building at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Programme, Kenya, also highlighted from his own experience:

“UK long-term funding has helped feed into country scientific preparedness and our ability to react quickly for testing and sequencing with COVID-19 and mobilise expertise within the country. We had the organisational capacity and equipment to very quickly respond.”

4. New national/international collaborations

Technical and financial support through the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) funded by IDRC, FCDO, NRF South Africa, SIDA, DFG and SGC, has led to nine new binational/trinational cooperation agreements, enabling several to run first-time joint calls for intra-Africa research collaboration; and increased the international visibility of sub-Saharan Africa’s Science Granting Councils.

5. Strengthened research management systems 

Research Management Programme in Africa (ReMPro Africa) funded by multiple UK funders, has strengthened good financial grant practice in over 300 African institutions and supported regional research management associations throughout Africa, including the strengthening of regional networks for research management professionals in Africa.

6. Strengthened clinical trial capacity  

The UK-funded Joint Global Health Trials (JGHT) has had a positive impact on clinical trial capacity in LMIC institutions. JGHT funded 82 late-phase clinical trials and 67 development awards, the latter of which has prepared the groundwork for future trials in new critical health areas and an expanded set of countries. Study results from trials have directly resulted in health policy impacts, for example, updated WHO guidelines and recommendations.

We hope this work will help inform and inspire future impactful and sustainable practices in the field. We would welcome feedback or comments on our cross-funder review findings and upcoming plans.

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