The need for speed: insights into funding rapid research
Simon Pickard, of our Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme, outlines key enablers to funding rapid research, as well as barriers and questions raised for funders…
When COVID-19 struck, we successfully launched a rapid research funding call, which has resulted in study findings being used in real-time to respond to the on-going health crisis across multiple humanitarian settings.
We attempted something similar in 2019, in response to the Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC, but this was even more challenging as the outbreak was over before many of the findings were available.
So how do we balance the need for speed — to make rapid funding decisions and conduct quick research — while still funding rigorous and meaningful research?
“I think the mechanism we have for this is fine and is suitable for some purposes. I think we need a different mechanism entirely for really urgent research.”
R2HC Advisory Group member (2021)
A newly-launched series of case studies from UKCDR, to accompany its new report, Funding and undertaking research during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: COVID CIRCLE lessons for funders’, showcases a variety of approaches adopted to fund research to urgently address COVID-19 in low resource settings.
R2HC is spotlighted for our ability to run an open call attracting a hugely diverse range of applicants. This is in contrast to other mechanisms, which relied on a more limited pool of pre-positioned partnerships.
We cast the net wide, inviting research proposals that responded to the needs of national policy makers or communities and would be directly relevant to local contexts in the early stages of the pandemic.
The call attracted more than 450 applications, and we were able to make funding decisions within five weeks of the call launch.
Three key enabling factors were:
- Having trusted, qualified, reputable networks in place to inform the decision on whether and when to launch a research funding call.
We rely upon our Advisory Group and funders, drawing on real-time knowledge from key agencies such as WHO, UNICEF and MSF, to ensure the call is timely and relevant. Using an established framework, such as the WHO Coordinated Global Research Roadmap, was also critical to identify research needs or gaps of relevant practical interest.
2. The ability of research teams to submit proposals at short notice that meet our requirements for rigorous, ethical and feasible research.
Most successful applications built on existing research collaborations and on-going work, suggesting that well-established partnerships have a head start in developing strong proposals.
We have conducted an independent analysis of proposals submitted to our COVID-19 call that has helped to identify common weaknesses. These included: research findings that were deemed by independent reviewers to produce limited, non-urgent or non-generalisable findings; questions about the appropriateness of methods to address the research question or for the setting or circumstances; and concern about the ability to generate and disseminate knowledge quickly enough to have an impact on the current response. [Figure 1].
Interestingly, the review found all proposals — including those ultimately awarded funding — had potential weaknesses identified by reviewers.
3. Research teams that have critical relationships and infrastructure already in place.
This enabled activities to get going quickly and effectively. In-country researchers with experience of, and access to, ethical review boards can be critical to overcoming a hurdle that can otherwise take many months to resolve.
On-site presence and ongoing related research or programme activities facilitate faster delivery and can help wrap-up or finalise data analysis post-research implementation.
These relationships are also crucial for the early engagement of critical stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Health or relevant NGO/UN agencies. Reflections in this peer-reviewed paper from a study (funded through our annual call mechanism) that collected rapid data in response to cholera outbreaks mirror many of these same critical factors: the importance of pre-existing, trusted relationships with operational partners, alongside the flexibility and patience required to obtain approvals to deploy.
Rapid research barriers
Even with the above facilitators in place, critical barriers remain for the rapid delivery of research findings.
In an open funding call model, in which due diligence and contracting has not been undertaken in advance, onerous processes can have significant knock-on impacts for the whole timeline.
Our contracting took as little as three weeks for existing partners, but many months for new partners. These barriers are most likely to impact less experienced or less well-resourced applicants, including from low- and middle-income countries who are often best placed to deliver timely, contextually-relevant and impactful research.
“Given the extensive due diligence requirements, in combination with short timeframes, we wouldn’t regard the programme as well accessible for LMIC applicants. It would be good to see if and how this could be improved or facilitated.”
Applicant to R2HC funding call (2021)
Other external factors cause delays too, including ethical approvals, sub-contracting relationships and, in humanitarian research, the sheer unpredictably of contexts that face multiple other challenges beyond the topic of study.
Any of these risk incurring delays that reduce the opportunity for findings, however insightful, to influence response to a crisis which might be over before decision-makers receive the relevant information.
To help avoid this, we work with our grantees to support their early engagement of key audiences for their findings, and support the development of targeted research snapshots for humanitarian stakeholders.
Earlier this year we commissioned an independent process review to reflect on the fidelity, acceptability and delivery of our rapid ‘responsive funding mechanism’.
Drawing on survey responses and interviews with our grantees, applicants and Advisory Group members, the report* successfully identified critical structural limitations to the objective of delivering rapid research. It also posed the following questions:
- Would pre-positioned partnerships with well-placed research partners/teams enable an even quicker initial response?
Targeted, strategic partnerships could be a means of ensuring faster, relevant responses. These would overcome the due diligence and contracting procedures which substantially slowed down many of our grantees.
- Would a hybrid model, combining pre-positioned research teams alongside a parallel open and competitive funding call, be a good solution? And would this allow for the advantages of quick contracting of pre-positioned teams as well as selection of other research teams well-positioned to identify critical questions and/or to deliver contextually appropriate research?
- Should a distinction be made between enabling rapid data collection and full research? Key data is usually needed immediately after the onset of a crisis or infectious disease outbreak to inform critical acute phases of humanitarian response, and could be made available through lighter-touch processes that don’t usually require ethical approvals. Longer-term research could be conducted in a phased approach, potentially for a longer 12- to 24-month period, to answer more complex questions.
These questions mirror calls to establish a standing, coordinated system and sustainable financing for global research and development at a higher level.
The review of our responsive research mechanism suggested that there could also be opportunities for us to tap into open data sources, early warning systems, preparedness and anticipatory financing, disaster risk reduction methods and processes within key operational organisations (such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross) to form earlier triggers that help determine when rapid research is most needed.
“Many of these emergencies are not as unpredictable as people think. Some we know, we just don’t know when. The countries are always the same, with the exception of Covid.”
R2HC Advisory Group member (2021)
Despite current funding pressures in the sector, we remain committed to keeping our responsive mechanism available for when the next major crisis hits.
We will continue to seek answers to some of these challenging questions as we further develop our processes. We invite your comments and reflections to help us on this journey.
*A review of R2HC’s Responsive Funding Mechanism — Ravenstone Consult (April 2021)