Making the rhetoric of equitable partnerships in research a reality

Diana Dalton, Deputy Director, DFID, Research and Evidence Division

Diana Dalton, Deputy Director, DFID

Since joining DFID in 2005 I have worked in country programme delivery, policy teams, communications and am now a Deputy Director in Research and Evidence. When I first joined the organisation a new research strategy was starting to take shape, resulting in a big step up to a £1billion commitment to research over the 2008–13 period. DFID’s conviction that effective programming must be informed by global expertise to plug knowledge gaps was given greater momentum; supporting larger scale research to generate robust evidence and learn from the proven successes (and failures) of the past.

The funding landscape for research since that time has grown significantly, as well as becoming somewhat more complex. Here are a few numbers to help set the scene.

  • From 2015–21 the UK Government has pledged that 2.4% of GDP will be spent on Research and Development (R&D) and £4b of that will come from the Overseas Development Assistance budget over the period.

From that £4b…

  • DFID allocates 3% of its budget (around £320m pa) to research in addition to spending £80m a year to tackle infectious diseases through the $1b Ross Fund, working closely with the Department for Health and Social Care.
  • And the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will spend £735m through Newton Fund and launched a new £1.5b Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF).

This scale up enables us to achieve even more through these different but complementary funding channels. But also important is that it has created opportunities to develop a more diverse and inclusive range of partnerships with research institutions all over the world. DFID greatly values these relationships, built and nurtured over time, resulting in real impact. The benefits are clear: partnership with the private sector has resulted in revolutionary tests for the detection of tuberculosis and sleeping sickness; partnership with researchers in 7 countries has generated evidence on the most effective approaches to end female genital mutilation/cutting; and partnership with scientists through the Medicines for Malaria Venture has helped to develop better drugs to treat malaria, which has resulted in the first WHO-licensed injectable artesunate for the treatment of severe malaria saving an estimated 240,000 lives compared to quinine. There are, of course, many more examples I could give.

It was with a focus on the value of partnership that I joined the fourth and final of the global engagement events organised by the GCRF, in Kenya, at the end of January. This was one of a series of regional meetings to build awareness of the fund and widen the global network of partnerships with institutions and individual researchers from all over the world. Unsurprisingly the meeting focused on unpacking what we mean, or want, when we say how important partnership is. And this varies: we need to strengthen research capacity in the ‘Global South’ at an individual, institutional and system level; we must ensure greater development impact through the strong involvement of skilled national/regional researchers; and an increase in the relevance and applicability of research at a national level will only come if partnerships harness essential local knowledge.

The UK Collaborative on Development Science (UKCDS) presented principles of equitable and effective partnerships — but the strongest views were heard on the following:

  • Equitable partnerships are only possible if the agenda setting is a shared process. Too many researchers from other countries ‘land’ with a set plan, only then looking for inputs from local institutions.
  • An equal and balanced partnership is more assured if funding investments are guaranteed from both (or multiple) sides. Foreign researchers accountable to distant funders can upset the equilibrium.
  • The range of organisations or individuals (from academia, the private sector, or civil society) with the potential to make a valuable contribution to research is still too narrow — a collective look beyond the horizon is a priority, communicating effectively how others can become involved.
  • The different (competing) institutional and individual drivers when conducting a research project cause tension. The demands of funders, the judgement of bosses and peers, appropriate credit for outputs, often pull in different directions and negatively affect partnership behaviour.
Professor Reuben Marwanga, Chair KENIA

A strong challenge came from Professor Reuben Marwanga (above), Chair of the Kenyan National Innovation Agency (KENIA), on the importance of research yielding practical and nationally relevant results. He drew on the Global Innovation Index, which measures innovation performance of 127 countries using a conversion of inputs to outputs when it comes to innovation. Switzerland scores 92%, Kenya 66% (by no means particularly low — Singapore is 62%). To what degree can we apply this approach to research inputs? Is a high “efficiency” score for research an indicator that we’ve got partnership right?

DFID’s research budget sits alongside its significant investments (over £10b pa) to deliver assistance in low income countries across many thematic areas. Our approach is to define research priorities through analysis of the most intractable development challenges, then focus our investment choices on potential for impact, additionality, quality and deliverability within a realistic timeframe. When it comes to who we work in partnership with, robust competitive procurement processes means that all are open to apply. But while there are good frameworks and principles to follow on partnership fairness, there is more for UK Government research funders to do to communicate clear expectations and standards on the formation of equitable partnerships.

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