Strengthening capacity for natural sciences research: A qualitative assessment to identify good practices, capacity gaps and investment priorities in African research institutions

Autoři: Taghreed El Hajj aff001;  Stefanie Gregorius aff002;  Justin Pulford aff001;  Imelda Bates aff001
Působiště autorů: Centre for Capacity Research, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Liverpool, England, United Kingdom aff001;  Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Bonn aff002
Vyšlo v časopise: PLoS ONE 15(1)
Kategorie: Research Article
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228261



Strengthening research capacity in low-and-middle-income countries is essential to drive socioeconomic development and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Understanding strengths and weaknesses in institutions’ research capacity can guide effective targeting of investments and resources. This study assessed the capacity of institutions undertaking research in natural science topics in Africa to identify priority capacity gaps for future investment.


Assessments were conducted in eight African institutions that were partners in a UK-Africa programme to strengthen research capacity in renewable energy, soil-related science, and water and sanitation. Assessments involved eighty-six interviews and three focus group discussions to identify institutions’ research capacity strengths and gaps against an evidence-informed benchmark. Use of the same interview guides and data collection processes across all institutions meant that findings could be compared.


Common research capacity gaps were: lack of, or poorly maintained, equipment; unreliable, slow procurement systems; insufficient opportunities for developing the skills of research support staff such as administrators and technicians; dysfunctional institutional email communication systems; insufficient focus on the development of ‘soft’ researcher skills such as ethics, academic writing and, in non-Anglophone countries, English language. Programme strengths were the South-South and South-North partnerships for sharing and cascading expertise and resources, joint writing of proposals and publications, and improved individual and institutional visibility.


There were many similarities in research capacity gaps irrespective of the institutions’ natural sciences research focus, and these were similar to those reported in the health sector. Common capacity needs are improving the skills of technicians and administrators to support research activities, soft skills training for researchers, and more effective pan-institutional e-communication systems. These could be strategic investment targets for the joint efforts of national governments and international organisations that fund programmes for strengthening research capacity in low- and middle-income countries.

Klíčová slova:

Consortia – Equipment – Finance – Government laboratories – Institutional funding of science – Research assessment – Research laboratories – Research quality assessment


1. United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 [Internet]; 2015 [cited 2017 May 15].

2. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (UNSDGs). Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all [Internet]. United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; 2018 [cited 2019 May 20].

3. Ntanos S, Skordoulis M, Kyriakopoulos G, Arabatzis G, Chalikias M, Galatsidas S, Batzios A, Katsarou A. Renewable energy and economic growth: Evidence from European countries. Sustainability. 2018 Aug; 10(8):2626.

4. Koon AD, Nambiar D, Rao KD. Embedding of research into decision-making processes [Internet]. New Delhi: Public Health Foundation of India; 2012 Apr [cited 2017 July 11].

5. Bennett S, Agyepong IA, Sheikh K, Hanson K, Ssengooba F, Gilson L. Building the field of health policy and systems research: an agenda for action. PLOS Medicine. 2011 Aug 30;8(8): e1001081. 21918641

6. World Health Organization. Health in 2015: from MDGs, millennium development goals to SDGs, sustainable development goals [Internet]. World Health Organization; 2015 [cited 2017 Jul 10].

7. Kok MO, Gyapong JO, Wolffers I, Ofori-Adjei D, Ruitenberg J. Which health research gets used and why? An empirical analysis of 30 cases. Health research policy and systems. 2016 Dec;14(1):36. doi: 10.1186/s12961-016-0107-2 27188305

8. Teferra D. Funding higher education in Africa: State, trends and perspectives. Journal of Higher Education in Africa/Revue de l'enseignement supérieur en Afrique. 2013 Jan 1;11(1–2):19–51.

9. Department for International Development (DFID). DFID research Review [Internet]. London, United Kingdom: Department for International Development; 2016 Oct 26 [cited 2018 Mar 14].

10. Newman K. What is the evidence on the impact of research on international development. [Internet]. London, United Kingdom: Department for International Development; 2014. [cited 2017 Feb 27].

11. UK Research and Innovation. The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) [Internet]. [cited 2017 Feb 27].

12. Baskaran A. UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030. Institutions and Economies. [Internet] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO); 2017 Jul 12 [cited 2019 May 20].

13. ChartsBin statistics collector team [dataset on the internet]. 2011. Number of Researchers per million inhabitants by country. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics. [cited 2018 Mar 14].

14. Vogel I. Research capacity strengthening: learning from experience [Internet]. London: UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS); 2011 [cited 2018 Mar 12].

15. Enoch J. Rapid mapping of international funders’ research capacity strengthening priorities. [Internet]. London: UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS); 2015 [cited 2018 Mar 12]. UKCDS.

16. Enoch J. Health research capacity strengthening: A UKCDS Mapping? [Internet]. London: UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS); 2015 Feb 9 [cited 2018 Mar 12].

17. Nuyens Y. 10 best resources for health research capacity strengthening. Health Policy and Planning. 2007 Jul 1; 22(4):274–6. 17584807

18. Bates I, Boyd A, Aslanyan G, Cole DC. Tackling the tensions in evaluating capacity strengthening for health research in low-and middle-income countries. Health Policy and Planning. 2015 Apr 1; 30(3):334–44. 24717984

19. Bates I, Boyd A, Smith H, Cole DC. A practical and systematic approach to organisational capacity strengthening for research in the health sector in Africa. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2014; 12(1):11.

20. Cole DC, Boyd A, Aslanyan G, Bates I. Indicators for tracking programmes to strengthen health research capacity in lower-and middle-income countries: a qualitative synthesis. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2014;12(1):17.

21. The Royal Society [Internet]. Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative [cited 2017 Jul 12].

22. Gregorius S, Dean L, Cole DC, Bates I. The peer review process for awarding funds to international science research consortia: a qualitative developmental evaluation. F1000Research. 2017; 6:1808. 29333239

23. Wallis S, Cole DC, Gaye O, Mmbaga BT, Mwapasa V, Tagbor H, Bates I. Qualitative study to develop processes and tools for the assessment and tracking of African institutions’ capacity for operational health research. BMJ Open. 2017 Sep 1; 7(9): e016660. 28877945

24. Bates I, Phillips R, Martin-Peprah R, Kibiki G, Gaye O, Phiri K, Tagbor H, Purnell S. Assessing and strengthening African universities' capacity for doctoral programmes. PLOS Medicine. 2011 Sep 13; 8(9): e1001068. 21931538

25. Robinson OC. Sampling in interview-based qualitative research: A theoretical and practical guide. Qualitative research in psychology. 2014 Jan 2;11(1):25–41.

26. Creswell JW. Research design qualitative, quantitative, and mixed method approaches. 4th ed. Sage Publications, Inc.; 2014.

27. Gale NK, Heath G, Cameron E, Rashid S, Redwood S. Using the framework method for the analysis of qualitative data in multi-disciplinary health research. BMC Medical Research Methodology. 2013; 13(1):117.

28. Ritchie J, Lewis J, Nicholls CM, Ormston R, editors. Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Inc.; 2014.

29. Mirzoev T, Lê G, Green A, Orgill M, Komba A, Esena RK, et. al. Assessment of capacity for Health Policy and Systems Research and Analysis in seven African universities: results from the CHEPSAA project. Health Policy and Planning. 2013 Sep 14; 29(7):831–41. 24038107

30. Block MA, Mills A. Assessing capacity for health policy and systems research in low and middle-income countries. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2003;1(1):1. 12646072

31. Kagondu R, Marwa SM. Quality Issues in Kenya’s Higher Education Institutions. Journal of Higher Education in Africa/Revue de l'enseignement supérieur en Afrique. 2017 Jan 1; 15(1):23–42.

32. Green A, Bennett S, editors. Sound Choices Enhancing Capacity for Evidence-Informed Health Policy [Internet]. World Health Organization; 2007 [cited 2018 Aug 9].

33. Redman-MacLaren M, MacLaren DJ, Harrington H, Asugeni R, Timothy-Harrington R, Kekeubata E, Speare R. Mutual research capacity strengthening: a qualitative study of two-way partnerships in public health research. International Journal for Equity in Health. 2012 Dec;11(1):79.

34. Okwakol MJ. Challenges and Prospects for Quality Assurance in Science and Technology Education in African Universities. The Uganda Higher Education Review Journal of the National Council of Higher Education. 2008; 5(2):17–26.

35. The African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions (ANSTI). State of Science and Technology Training Institutions in Africa [internet]. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Regional Bureau for Science in Africa; 2005 July [cited 2018 May 6].

36. World Health Organization. WHO Guide for the Stepwise Laboratory Improvement Process Towards Accreditation (SLIPTA) in the African Region (with checklist) [Internet]. World Health Organization; 2015 [cited 2017 Jul 10].

37. M'baya B. Development of a stepwise accreditation programme from the perspective of the Africa Society for Blood Transfusion. ISBT Science Series. 2014; 9(1):68–71.

38. Dean L, Njelesani J, Smith H, Bates I. Promoting sustainable research partnerships: a mixed-method evaluation of a United Kingdom–Africa capacity strengthening award scheme. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2015; 13(1):81.

39. Datta A. Strengthening research systems: concepts, actions and actors [Internet]. K4D Helpdesk Report. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies; 2018 [cited 2018 Sep 13].

40. UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS). Five key trends driving change in research for development [Internet]; 2016 [cited 2018 Sep 13].

41. Department for International Development (DFID). DFID research strategy 2008–2013 working paper series: capacity building [Internet]. London, United Kingdom: Department for International Development; 2008 April [cited 2018 Mar 14].

42. The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) [Internet]. African Academy of Sciences; c2017 [cited 2018 Sep 13]. Good Financial Grant Practice; [about 3 screens].

43. Consort. Scoping work on research management in LMICs—India [Internet]. Wellcome Trust Project Report. Cambridge: Consort; 2017 [cited 2018 Sep 14].

44. Consort. Scoping work on research management in LMICs—Sub-Saharan Africa [Internet]. Wellcome Trust Project Report. Cambridge: Consort; 2017 [cited 2018 Sep 14].

Článek vyšel v časopise


2020 Číslo 1