Academic institutions in Africa often depend on international collaborators for their research agenda, scientific support and funding. For example, clinical research conducted by the College of Medicine (CoM), University of Malawi, is recognized to be of high quality. However, its research agenda has largely been developed, driven by and funded through its international collaborators (Europe and the US). Furthermore, the intellectual ownership of the research conducted in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa has remained with the collaborating institutes, as reflected in the main applicant on grant proposals and key authorship positions in publications (Kerac et al, 2009; Dorsey et al, 2007). The recent introduction of international standards such as Good Clinical Practice (GCP) has generally improved the quality of research. However, it has also amplified the complexity and costs of conducting research, further increasing the dependence of resource-limited academic institutions on their international collaborators.
Traditional approaches to strengthening research capacity in developing countries have focused primarily on honing individual skills through training at the doctoral level in developed country institutions without preparing the environment at the home institution for the return of these skilled individuals (Sawyerr, 2004). These research capacity-building efforts have been unable to halt the brain-drain from African academic institutions to high-paying non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and institutions in the North. A combination of limited career opportunities, lack of institutionalised support for research and remuneration are major reasons young African academics do not return to their home countries after their training overseas (Sawyerr, 2004; University of Malawi, 2004).
To build sustainable research capacity and local research ownership in developing countries, a management model is needed that comprehensively addresses the factors noted above (Figure 1). The CoM has established a Research Support Centre (RSC), which, in its first four years, has successfully addressed these issues. This manuscript describes the conceptual functions and achievements of the Malawian RSC, and proposes the RSC concept as a tool to develop sustainable research capacity in similar, research-limited academic institutions.
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Research Support Centre (RSC) Concept and Functions
There are four major elements of RSC functions that an African university may develop.
Individual Support is focused on developing research skills by providing both faculty and students a package of logically sequenced courses, including research methodology and the conduct of research (e.g., protocol writing, project management, data management, and Good Clinical Practice [GCP]), and one-to-one consultations for statistical and epidemiological support.
Clinical Trials Support is essential for the development of GCP-compliant protocols and the instruments to implement them. This includes support
with relevant research regulatory guidelines, protocol submission to review committees, data and grants management, and trial coordination and monitoring by locally trained study coordinators and clinical research associates (CRAs). Training of local CRAs and study coordinators is an essential component of the RSC concept and a potential source of income.
Research Information Support includes the development of research information (website and newsletter) and data management services, such as the RSC website (www. medcol.mw/rsc/).
Grant Administration Support focuses on establishing sound pre- and postaward administrative, financial and project management.
Critical to the success of these elements is the establishment or strengthening of the overall research governance, including the ethical review of research proposals. …