Why research capacity strengthening is essential to health for all
High-quality research is crucial for effective health policies and programmes in every country, but research capacity is not available equally around the world.
“We need to invest in young researchers, female researchers, and in the capacity of the mid-level researcher to develop and apply their skills,” explained Malabika Sarker, Chair of the HRP Alliance Advisory Board. “ If we really want to improve research capacity, it can’t only be from the top down.”
Here are four reasons why research capacity strengthening – known as RCS – is crucial for a world where all people attain the highest possible level of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR):
RCS strengthens research communities for national, regional, and global leadership
Strong researchers, institutions and infrastructure are essential for generating data that accurately reflect populations and promote gender equality and human rights.
Since 2017 the HRP Alliance has been collaborating with national and sub-national research institutions in low- and middle-income countries to help build and connect a sustainable base of new researchers with expertise in SRHR. This enables researchers to focus and publish on specific national and regional needs and interests. It also creates a community that can sustain junior researchers on the long career journey ahead.
Over 2,200 individuals from 69 countries have been supported by the HRP Alliance through short courses, as well as doctoral and master’s degrees. Two recent doctoral graduates were involved in large UN Special Research Programme HRP studies in maternal health and family planning.
“As a WHO-HRP PhD Fellow, my journey has not been a lonely endeavor,” said Charles M’poca Charles, presenting his research on maternal mortality and SARS-CoV-2 at the HRP Alliance Global Meeting in September. Charles, who completed his master’s degree with support from the HRP Alliance, has now begun his PhD at the University of Campinas, Brazil.
“I have had experience, exposure, and opportunities for growth. I want to go home to Mozambique and set up a sustainable research group on maternal and perinatal health.”
RCS creates an enabling environment for researchers
At the core of the HRP Alliance are regional research capacity strengthening hubs – academic institutions selected to lead and strengthen SRHR research capacity in their regions. There are currently 7 HRP Alliance hubs: Campinas, Brazil; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Accra, Ghana; Nairobi, Kenya; Karachi, Pakistan; Khon Kaen, Thailand; and Hanoi, Viet Nam.
The HRP Alliance connects researchers and institutions in these hubs to WHO offices, WHO Collaborating Centres and other WHO special programmes and partnerships, as well as to ongoing research projects coordinated by HRP.
As well as creating opportunities for research, HRP Alliance hubs are strategic responses to structural power dynamics in global health. Power imbalances can create barriers to participation as equals, especially for some researchers in low- and middle-income countries, and contribute to limited ownership over global health research that directly concerns their communities.
The HRP Alliance also promotes fair authorship of scientific papers, encourages research groups to include women in leadership positions, and provides structured mentorship to early career female researchers.
“My mentor recognized my zeal for research at a time when I really needed a programme like this, helping me to prioritize,” explained Princess Acheampong, a post-doctoral fellow in Ghana, part of the first cohort of the HRP Alliance mentorship programme. “I also connected with other mentees on the programme and now we are putting together a proposal for a grant using mobile phones to improve uptake of maternal health services in Ghana, Nepal, and Pakistan.”
RCS facilitates rapid response to health emergencies
Outbreaks and health emergencies create the need to act fast. They are also a reminder that high-quality evidence is critical for shaping real-time public health responses.
To date, the HRP Alliance has funded 23 such projects in collaboration with WHO partners, including joint calls for community-based research on health emergencies during the Zika virus outbreak (in 2016) and the mass migration crisis in the Americas (in 2019).
These collaborations allowed for the emergence of new evidence from Brazil, Colombia and Peru that have strengthened knowledge on the relationship between infectious diseases of poverty and sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is relevant both in the context of Zika and in the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The HRP Alliance has also helped to shine a research light on migrants and refugees, whose sexual and reproductive health and rights are often curtailed – if not totally disregarded. The latest call for proposals is supporting 11 research groups in Latin America to undertake high-quality and context-specific research, based on local and regional priorities, with an emphasis on integrating considerations for gender equality and human rights as well as research capacity strengthening.
HRP Alliance hubs have also proved essential to the COVID-19 research response, collaborating closely with WHO. Through rapid and effective networking with HRP Alliance partners early in the pandemic, COVID-19 research networks were quickly established. Hubs are leading WHO and HRP research related to the impact of the pandemic on health systems, pregnancy and COVID-19 risks, and women’s experiences with contraceptive and abortion care during the pandemic.
RCS strengthens the shared goals of everyone involved
Effective research capacity strengthening is not a philanthropic side project: it is a fundamental part of sustainable SRHR research ecosystems and improving SRHR for all.
Since the launch of the new strategy in 2016, HRP Alliance-supported researchers have made significant contributions to the implementation of WHO/HRP multi-country studies, building the evidence base on critical issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights. The HRP Alliance has also shown that opportunities to participate in larger research studies can strengthen individual research capacity.
“Sexual and reproductive health and rights are a fundamental component of universal health coverage, but efforts to strengthen research capacity for generating evidence to guide provision of sexual and reproductive health services are particularly scarce ”, said Anna Thorson, Unit Head, WHO Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research/HRP.
“The HRP Alliance has a critical role to play, building networks, supporting, listening and learning from each other’s work, and strengthening collaborations that will improve SRHR for all.”