At the beginning of this academic year, I got really enthusiastic during a conversation with a 1st year PhD chemist from Nigeria, Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto. Stephen asked me what we had in place at the University of Sheffield to support the particular needs of international students seeking to lead change in the research landscape of their home countries.
I felt quite embarrassed at first, as I realized that albeit all the researcher development activities and opportunities on offer for all of our PhD researchers, and all the various researchers’ networks we already have in place (e.g. ECR branch of the Women@TUOS network, other networks), the particular needs of PhD researchers from DAC-countries was not something that we had much explored. A few years back, I had run some induction sessions for new overseas PhD students about adapting to a new research culture & environment. The discussion with Stephen picked my attention and prompted me to consider the current gap in our provision towards preparing these researchers to the challenges of the research environment in their own countries post-PhD. As we offer each year some funding to our early career researchers to lead on the development of initiatives that support their research communities, I suggested to Stephen that we should be working together to start setting up a researcher-led network that would address the particular needs of PhD students and early career researchers from Africa and “least developed countries”. Stephen put an application forward that we selected as part of the Think Ahead ECR-PGR led fund.
We are now at a stage, where we want to take actions and start to engage with our researchers in identifying what these needs are, and how might such a network develop. The core idea is to build a programme of activities and inputs that has the potential to build the “accelerated leadership”(Alison Mitchell, Vitae) needed for PhD graduates from DAC-countries. At this point, we have not decided yet what such network may be called and what its focus will be. The intention is to build it through direct engagement with our research communities, as well as bring in the expertise of our academics ,who already have an understanding of the research landscape overseas.
The fact that this initiative is emerging from discussions with a Nigerian PhD student feels quite refreshing. My view is that such grass root initiative has the potential to be greatly impactful:
- To build the leadership of PhD researchers/ early career researchers from DAC-countries
- To help other researchers understand the specific context of research in developing countries
Building relationships and understanding between early career researchers from around the world is significant in the context of the current UK approach, which is to invest through The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), over a 5 years period (2016-2021) “to ensure UK research takes a leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries”.
I was attending yesterday an event organised by the UK Council for Graduate Education on ‘Global challenge research fund and overseas development- the challenge, roles and opportunities for doctoral education’. During this event, colleagues shared their experiences on how different institutions were exploring how best to develop initiatives that support the GCRF objectives with its 12 research challenge areas, as well as UN sustainable development goals.
I was impressed by the work of the Association of Commonwealth Universities presented by Verity Buckley, who gave a whistle tour of some of the key programmes for early career researchers/ academic developed for sub-Saharan universities. Dr Douglas Halliday shared the approach, which The University of Durham is taking in setting up a GCRF- Doctoral Training Centre. Their programme will offer 26 projects across the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals with the aim of recruiting PhD students from DAC nations. The University of Kent has gone even further by incorporating a commitment towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals into its institutional strategy. Our own institution announced this week a fellowship scheme for early career researchers as part of its GCRF activities
David McAllister (BBSRC) and Liam Haydon (UKRI) explained that as funders they are still exploring the best approach that would enable GCRF to become meaningful investments in terms of UK research as well as talent investment for researchers from developing countries. Whilst 12 GCRF hubs were announced this week, there remains to identify how these investments will change the research landscape in developing countries themselves.
The ethical dimension of GCRF investment was a repeated feature in the discussions that took place at this meeting. What are we really trying to achieve through this funding? What should the vision of the GCRF really be? Each institution is shaping its own approach and focus to using the GCRF funding. Colleagues involved in GCRF projects shared some of the challenges faced in running such collaborative projects: small number of PhD graduates among lecturing staff in African institutions, lack of a “Postdoc population” to draw from onto projects, or very high teaching load of many lecturers. Our discussions also took us towards discussing the notion of “co-creation/ co-production of knowledge” as a new type of impact agenda. If our new research collaborators are to be from DAC countries, we may need to review our western approach to undertaking research projects.
Engaging researchers/ academics from developing countries into these GCRF projects means developing true partnerships and interactions over long periods of time.
What our emerging ECR network may bring is space and time for ECRs to develop the readiness and leadership to engage meaningfully in building strong collaborations with the view of developing proposals as lead investigators, and not just co-investigators. Building research capacity and innovation in developing countries is certainly an immense challenge, that may appear like an impossible task. Supporting research capacity building in developing countries can mean getting researchers feel empowered to continue doing high quality research back home after doing a PhD abroad. Michael Peak from the British Council presented data from a review of the PhD landscape in a number of sub-Saharan countries. Whilst the case was made about the need to expand the number of PhD graduates in these countries, our own task at the University of Sheffield is to work closely with our PhD students from developing countries to get them to lead the research strategies in their home institutions and to get them to build the competencies, resilience and confidence for the task ahead.
I would say to all of us involved in researcher development that building such research capacity will happen one researcher at a time through close links and sustained interactions with our researchers, and by taking the time to actively and openly listen to their particular needs and aspiration. So let’s get going. Watch this space…