Developing East African Social Science Capacity
In a small study 29 in-depth interviews, informal conversations and a group discussion were conducted with social science professionals in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Respondents primarily attributed inadequate social science research capacity to: very poor schooling; talented students choosing high status vocational courses; poor facilities and teaching at university; donors funding research through Northern institutions rather than local academic institutions; and the drain of highly qualified researchers abroad. However, a recurrent theme was the predominance of individually-contracted research consultancies. These seem to divert university staff from academic research, supporting colleagues and training the next generation of researchers, stunt the institutional capacity of university departments, restrict the sharing of research findings and perpetuate donors’ control of the research agenda.
Although the overriding problem is macro-economic, changing the process by which much research is conducted might ameliorate the situation. This exploratory study suggests that the research capacity of local research institutions might be strengthened if consultancy research were commissioned through these institutions, rather than through individuals, with the payment of substantial overheads.
Following this exploratory study, Keith Nurse (Shridath Ramphal Centre, Barbados, West Indies) was commissioned to study donor funding for health-related social science research in East Africa, in order to identify the most valuable mechanisms for research capacity strengthening (RCS). Most RCS has been at the level of individuals which is problematic, given shortage of capable trainees and the high rate of brain drain. There are few examples of RCS at the institutional level (e.g. provision of institutional overheads, direct budget support, facilitation of regional networking). Sustained financial, political and intellectual support from donor agencies and external research organizations has been critical to the few successful research institutions, and they are therefore highly vulnerable to changes in donor agency policies.
A further study of how institutional factors affect RCS in Uganda was commissioned from Joy Kwesiga (Kabale University) and Josephine Ahikire (Makerere University, Kampala). A survey with a representative sample of social scientists in four Ugandan universities, group discussions and semi-structured interviews with research commisioners confirmed the findings of the previous exploratory research (Wight 2008). Much of Ugandan social science research appears to take the form of small, individually contracted consultancy projects. Researchers perceived this to constrain their professional development and, more broadly, social science research capacity across Uganda. Conversely, most research commissioners seemed broadly satisfied with the research expertise available and felt no responsibility to contribute to strengthening research capacity. Most consultancy research does not involve institutional overheads and there seems little awareness of, or interest in, such overheads.
Although inequalities in the global knowledge economy are probably perpetuated primarily by macro-level factors, in line with Dependency Theory, meso-level factors are also important. The current research market and institutional structures in Uganda appear to create career paths that seriously impede the development of high quality social science research capacity, undermining donor investments and professional effort to strengthen this capacity. These problems are probably generic to much of sub-Saharan Africa. However, both commissioning and research organizations seem ready, in principle, to establish national guidelines for institutional research consultancies. These could develop both institutional and individual research capacity, improve output and accountability, and facilitate academic research funding and indigenous research agendas (Wight et al. 2014).
Research on the barriers to strengthening health-related social science research capacity was funded by the DfID Knowledge Programme on HIV/ AIDS and STIs.
Wight D, Ahikire J, Kwesiga JC. Consultancy research as a barrier to strengthening social science research capacity in Uganda. Social Science & Medicine 2014;116:32-40open access
Nurse K, Wight D. Development assistance and research capacity strengthening: the commissioning of health research in East Africa. Journal of East African Studies 2011;5:233-51
Wight D. Most of our social scientists are not institution based… they are there for hire: research consultancies and social science capacity for health research in East Africa. Social Science & Medicine 2008;66:110-116pubmed open access
Wight D. Impediments to developing social science research capacity in East Africa. MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit Occasional Paper no. 14, Glasgow, 2005open access