Nurturing a new generation of African researchers: starting with the institution and building on what’s already there

In discussions about how to grow the African research base over the last few years, it’s been good to see a greater focus on the needs of early career researchers and of the need for embedding support in institutions so it’s there for the future.

The Malaria Capacity Development Consortium have done some particularly interesting work, led by Hazel Mccullough, and have just published a brief review.

Early career researcher’ isn’t a precise category, interpreted differently by different people — sometimes taken to include postgrads, but often taken to mean researchers who’ve completed their PhD training but are yet to establish full research careers.

Missing middle

Many scholarships and fellowships support either postgrads or mid-career academics, so there isn’t much for early career staff. But the key gap has been early career support which is integrated into institutions themselves, rather than researchers relying on an ‘escape’ to another institution, on a fellowship, to advance their research and develop new skills. Alongside the basic scientific skills, these include the skills to supervise others, secure grants and manage projects, and get the resulting work published.

While there have been plenty of calls for more support (we made one ourselves in this report a few years ago) there haven’t been so many practical initiatives trying to actually do this — or at least not many which have got their stories out.

They’ve started to emerge though – and the lessons of them documented. I blogged a few months ago about a new report from the ACU and British Academy which considers what’s been learnt from three initiatives. And the Malaria Capacity Development Consortium have just published a brief review of their own programme of support for early career researchers in biomedical sciences.

The MCDC approach

The consortium comprised faculties of five African universities. They set up ‘career development groups’ in each, which made an initial assessment of each institution’s existing support, identified the gaps and developed an action plan. They recognised the need to align the early career support with the institution’s wider plans, and to ensure that any new systems and resources were integrated into existing institutional structures and processes.

Structured staff development programmes were set up, and researchers were introduced to ‘personal development portfolios’, which were matched to competency frameworks. Mentoring was introduced (MCDC made their online modules open access), and centres for career development established to provide the institutional architecture for support. Online systems allowed some of this activity to be managed and tracked. Postgraduate programmes have also been bolstered to address gaps earlier in the research career pipeline.

The report profiles career development groups at KNUST in Ghana and professional development portfolios at the College of Medicine in Malawi, mentoring at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal, developing an in-house online system to track postgrad students at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, and research activity at Makerere in Uganda, and restructuring postgrad training at KCMC in Tanzania.

Interests and incentives

What also stands out is that incentives were explicitly tackled. Often support for early career staff from more experienced colleagues is neglected because it’s not rewarded – academic rewards come from winning grants and getting more articles published, not from mentoring junior colleagues. The consortium managed to get this support included as part of promotion criteria.

Sustaining and scaling

The institutions are among the better resourced of African universities– medical/biomedical faculties which have been well supported by donors over the years . But the report seems to suggest that the interventions aren’t really significantly financial; they’re about improving institutional systems and processes, and engaging faculty and senior managers, which ought to put some of these solutions within the reach of other institutions. The fact that the review is illustrated by photos of people simply working together would seem to emphasise this.

A challenge is still to find funding models which can sustain this support beyond project grants. After two years it’s too early to be sure of this, but the approach of working with the grain of institutional structures, tightening and adding to what already exists, securing the backing of the right people at the right levels, and tackling individual interests and incentives suggests that the prospects are good.

Experience from INASP

At INASP we’re also working to ‘embed’ support for early career staff into institutional programmes, focusing particularly on research writing and publishing skills as part of our AuthorAID project. We’ve been working with the Medical Faculty of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka, Dodoma University in Tanzania, and the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute, among others. We’ve shared some of our own experiences in this learning report. The work with individual institutions is part of a broader programme of online support to researchers through the platform — from smaller, intensive courses, to a large open online course (think ‘MOOC’!) and a match-making facility to find experienced mentors.

Relatively modest funding has allowed universities to build on their existing work (as in the MCDC approach), and develop new approaches — such as a writing club in Colombo — which others in the network have then adopted or adapted, or to bring in elements of the AuthorAID programme, such as setting up their own Moodle courses using AuthorAID as a foundation.