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How a partnership is closing the door on "parachute" research in Africa

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There’s growing condemnation of “parachute research” among the global scientific community. This refers to the practice of scientists and research groups from the global north conducting research and collecting data in poorer parts of the world, publishing their findings in prestigious journals – and giving little or no credit to their local collaborators.

The respected journal Lancet Global Health recently published an editorial damning the approach. It drew immediate reactions from all over the world. James Smith from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine acknowledged the problem. But, he cautioned, researchers from developed countries have a role in shaping health discussions through high impact publications.

A group of malnutrition researchers based at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, weighed in to share their experience. They’ve established a body, the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition Network. It emphasises north-south collaboration and works to avoid “parachute” research.

More recently, Professor Jimmy Volmink and colleagues expressed concern about equity in collaborations between global health researchers in low-income and middle-income countries and academics in high-income countries. They noted that these partnerships often result in disproportionate benefits for the northern partners who assume more prominent authorship positions in joint publications.

For the past 15 years my colleagues and I have been doing work that we believe is important in this debate. We are involved in an organisation that focuses on partnerships. We believe that our model of global health partnership and international collaboration is closing the door to parachute researchers and those who pursue a parasitic rather than symbiotic approach to research in and about Africa.

We are not suggesting that researchers from the global north ought to stay out of Africa. Their contributions and the reach they enjoy into high impact journals can help the continent enormously. The problem arises when local researchers are sidelined and when no capacity building or skills development occurs. It’s also problematic when data is not shared with local researchers to further their work in communities.

These are some of the lessons we’ve learned in the 15 years since the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) was established 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 increased significantly to include neglected infectious diseases, emerging infections, diarrhoeal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections.

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

With a significant investment of €683 million from the European Union, matched by our participating states, this partnership model represents one of equality and inclusiveness. Each participating state is represented in the General Assembly, which governs the organisation.

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

On the career development front, our fellowship recipients must be a resident of, or be willing to relocate to, a sub-Saharan African country. And when it comes to clinical trials, collaboration is not just expected: it’s a rule. A minimum of three independent research institutions – two in European partner states and one in Africa – must be involved in any project that’s considered for funding.

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

Positive shifts

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

However, the situation is changing. More recent successful grant applications have been more inclusive. Central and West African institutions are featuring more frequently. And a greater proportion of principal investigators from the continent are women.

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

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

Benefits for all

Of course, not all research collaboration can be identical. But our experiences suggest that a few things are necessary to ensure everyone benefits genuinely from the results of collaborative research.

These include good data collection and data sharing infrastructure. Proper training for researchers from the global south in data collection and analysis is also crucial. So too, is fair representation of research partners from various research sites in both publications and subsequent meetings where the results and implications of the research are discussed.

Shingai Machingaidze, EDCTP Project Officer and a PhD student at the University of Cape Town, contributed to this article.

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