African scientists sidelined by paratrooper research teams — Quartz Africa


“Parachute research” is increasingly condemned by the global scientific community. This refers to the practice of scientists and research groups in the Global North who conduct research and collect data in poorer parts of the world, publish their findings in prestigious journals – and give little or no credit to their local collaborators.

The respected newspaper Lancet Global Health recently published an editorial condemning the move. It elicited immediate reactions from around the world. James Smith of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine recognized the problem. But, he warned, researchers in developed countries have a role to play in shaping health discussions through high-impact publications.

A group of malnutrition researchers based at the University of Malawi College of Medicine, took the stage to share their experience. They created an organization, the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition Network. It emphasizes north-south collaboration and strives to avoid “parachute” research.

More recently, Professor Jimmy Volmink and his colleagues have expressed concern about the fairness of collaborations between global health researchers from low- and middle-income countries and academics from high-income countries. They noted that these partnerships often result in disproportionate benefits to northern partners who take on larger authorship positions in joint publications.

Over the past 15 years, my colleagues and I have done what we believe is important work in this debate. We are involved in an organization that relies on partnerships. We believe that our model of global health partnership and international collaboration closes the door to parachute researchers and those pursuing a parasitic rather than symbiotic approach to research in and about Africa.

We are not suggesting that researchers from the northern hemisphere should stay outside of Africa. Their contributions and the reach they enjoy in high-impact journals can help the continent immensely. The problem arises when local researchers are sidelined and there is no capacity building or skills development. It is also problematic when data is not shared with local researchers to continue their work in communities.

These are some of the lessons we have learned in the 15 years since the establishment of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) by the European Union.

Setting up a partnership

The partnership was a response to the global health crisis caused by three major poverty-related diseases: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Our scope has expanded significantly to include neglected infectious diseases, emerging infections, diarrheal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections.

Today, there are 30 participating States, 16 of which are in Africa. These include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

With a significant investment of €683 million from the European Union, complemented by our Participating States, this partnership model represents a model of equality and inclusion. Each participating state is represented in the General Assembly, which governs the organization.

The partnership is in its second phase. Over the past five years, EDCTP has invested €447.6 million in 193 grants largely related to clinical trials and career development. What is important is that 62% of the funding was allocated to 226 institutions in Africa. This is valuable as more resources are needed to strengthen Africa’s generally weak research infrastructure and technical capacity.

In terms of career development, our scholars must reside in or be willing to relocate to a country in sub-Saharan Africa. And when it comes to clinical trials, collaboration isn’t just expected: it’s a rule. A minimum of three independent research institutes – two in the European Partner States and one in Africa – must be involved in any project considered for funding.

This eligibility criterion encourages European institutions to establish collaborations with those in Africa.

Positive changes

There have been some truly encouraging changes over the past 15 years that suggest true collaboration is underway. When we started, more than 70% of African institutions involved in successful applications were from countries with well-established health research institutions. These include South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. And the principal investigators in Africa were mostly men.

However, the situation is changing. More recent grant applications have been more inclusive. Institutions from Central and West Africa are more frequently represented. And a greater proportion of the continent’s principal researchers are women.

The collaboration that our partnership requires has produced great results in the real world. In 2017, we funded two major consortia to conduct research on emerging and re-emerging epidemics. They also provided capacity building to prepare African researchers to respond effectively to disease outbreaks.

Both consortia involve more African organizations than European ones. One is led by a researcher from the Republic of Congo.

Benefits for all

Of course, not all research collaborations can be the same. But our experiences suggest that certain things are necessary to ensure that everyone truly benefits from the results of collaborative research.

This includes a good infrastructure for collecting and sharing data. Adequate training of researchers from the South in data collection and analysis is also crucial. The same applies to the equitable representation of research partners from various research sites in subsequent publications and meetings where research findings and implications are discussed.

Shingai Machingaidze, EDCTP project officer and PhD student at the University of Cape Town, contributed to this article.

Moses John Bockarie, Assistant Professor, University of Njala

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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