How do we nurture a new generation of African researchers?

Researcher checks on cassava in vitro plantlets: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Reflections on a new report on support for early career academics in African universities

This latest report looks at what’s happening in the area of early career support for African academics — specifically how institutions are grappling with the need to provide more structured programmes of support, and what lessons are emerging.

The next generation: ideas and experience in African researcher support

This latest report looks at what’s happening in the area of early career support for African academics — specifically how institutions are grappling with the need to provide more structured programmes of support, and what lessons are emerging.

The needs that are identified will be familiar to many of those working in this domain. Getting published and winning funding emerge strongly (plug: check out AuthorAID which provides support here). More support is needed for the softer skills, rather than technical research skills (quite what these softer skills involve isn’t quite clear). Bridging the generations within universities, and finding ways to encourage senior staff to support junior colleagues is also particularly important. Most universities consulted (around 60%) have no formal support for early career staff.

Designing for institutions not projects

One of the report’s core questions is how early career support can be integrated into institutional processes. It’s a particularly important question to be asking. Many initiatives to tackle the problem have focused on individual support — often in the form of grants or fellowships, or participation in regional networks. Important as these are, they’re ultimately unsustainable if the means to continue this support — to those individuals, and to future researchers — aren’t also built in universities and research institutes. The authors are spot on in pointing to the need to ensure stronger institutions result from funded projects, not just clusters of more skilled individuals.

Designing with limited resources

The report isn’t naive to the challenges either and asks how, with the many pressures on the continent’s universities, this support can be developed with limited resources and in the context of many competing demands — coping with expanding student populations, improving teaching quality, upgrading facilities etc. Collaborative approaches might be one way to do this it notes— universities coming together to develop their early career support. There are some examples cited in the report (MCDC, CIRCLE) of recent ‘network’ initiatives which have enabled universities to benefit from the expertise of a broader group of universities (for others see the earlier report).

Getting beyond project funding

An important question is the extent to which any intervention — whether at single institutions, or collaborative approaches — can be sustained beyond project funding. It’s a challenge that the authors also recognise— and a point which would bear making a little more loudly. It might be better to identify and then strengthen what already exists to support early career staff, rather than dreaming up ideal interventions which may provide excellent support, but which are hard to maintain in the long run. As the report suggests, mentoring could be one of the most effective — and most affordable — ways of advancing the careers of early career researchers. If the incentives can be cracked that is!

Grappling with institutional cultures?

Culture is probably one of the most critical but all too-often neglected aspects of any attempt to change how things are done. So many projects work hard to develop the best technical inputs — design more efficient systems, or introduce new technologies to do things better — but fail to grapple with the people side of things. It’s good to see the report pick up on this issue, and it’d be something worth exploring in a bit more depth. What is it about institutional cultures which are particularly enabling — or disabling — for efforts to provide greater support to early career staff? There are some hints — the tendency of senior staff to offer limited support to younger colleagues, the need to identify what people care about, and win over those who make decisions and control policy. More please!

Well worth a read

There are many useful nuggets and ideas in the report, although a small font, lots of text and a tendency towards cautious language does require fairly careful reading to draw some of these out. A bit more colour on the CIRCLE, STARS and MCDC programmes (which are cited regularly and seem to offer valuable learning) would have been great, to understand their approaches and where some of these lessons come from. And although the list of those consulted shows decent representation from many countries and universities, a lot of the examples cited also come from UCT, so it’d be nice to have heard more about how other universities are tackling these challenges.

The series of which this report forms the third installment was originally conceived to address twin questions of how to strengthen the research base in African institutions, and how to harness the interests of UK universities to support this more effectively. These are still very relevant questions, especially as more UK research funding is designed to tackle the big challenges of global development — and should necessarily involve much greater collaboration with African universities in pursuit of that.